Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
I count myself a Science Fiction nerd. I will freely admit that my reading list is veritably smothered in it and I've now become quite comfortable with the stigma that it may bring. That being said, I feel no small amount of shame that this is the first of Ray Bradbury's books I've ever read. I throw myself upon the mercy of the bespectacled court; please make sure the phasers are set on stun.
Fahrenheit 451: the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns. That's the tagline of this 50th anniversary edition of the book and, of course, burning books is the central premise upon which the story unfolds. Guy Montag is a firefighter. However, in this day and age, firefighting has taken on a whole different meaning. Guy is charged with the socio-political responsibility of burning books wherever they may be found. There are still all the lights and sirens that we associate with being a firefighter -- they even have a pole to slide down on -- but now, when the fire engine pulls up outside your door, it is met with trepidation not relief. Whereas water used to be the fluid of salvation, kerosene has become the liquid of suppression. Guy goes about his duties with the typical verve that a firefighter must have and he never thought twice about lighting a match to save people from themselves. That is, until a new neighbor moved in.
Clarisse McLellan is 17 and, as is typical of persons of that age, doesn't care for how society requires her to think and behave. Guy and Clarisse happen to meet one day while he is returning home from work and they engage in a bit of idle banter. Guy is initially confused and a little disturbed by Clarisse's questions and opinions; however he chalks them up to youthful ignorance. But, Clarisse asks, "Have you ever read any of the books you burn?" Of course he hasn't; reading books illegal. Guy continues about his normal routine and even manages to talk to the strange girl next door on occasion. Eventually, Clarisse's views causes Guy to begin questioning what he once thought were societal norms which causes no small amount of stress at work and home. His boss begins interrogating him due to the inquiries Guy makes and his wife becomes concerned that he's acting strangely. That is, when she can pull herself away from the people on the wall. Guy tries to hide his new unconventional feelings from everybody but he is also hiding something else: a book. When Guy's indiscretion is finally uncovered, his own firefighting unit must pay him a visit which could cost Guy everything, including his life.
One of the reasons I love science fiction so much is that good authors base their writing in reality. It may not be today's reality, but a writer with a modicum of skill can make you believe that a particular event or invention could easily happen by connecting it with the familiar. In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury has proven himself somewhat of a prognosticator of our own times. Originally published in a shorter form in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1951, we can easily form associations to our own regulated and addictive multimedia world. How much time do you spend on the internet? What's your favourite reality TV program? Would you rather talk to real, meat-bag people, or would you prefer to type? Do you want your movies with or without full-frontal nudity?
I believe media consumption is an underlying message in the book, but what Bradbury was definitely alluding to, was the book burnings that various parties engaged in historically and the control of information. It doesn't take a minute to correlate many present day crusaders that are doing the very same thing that is the fireman's mantra. Consider certain religious groups that insisted the Harry Potter books be banned from school libraries for promoting witchcraft. Or perhaps the FCC dictating that a pastied boob was more offensive than a number of men trying to tear each other's heads off. Perhaps one could question the MPAA and their dictation of what may or may not be shown in a movie theatre. It doesn't matter that a person could just change the channel, not go to the movie or decide not to buy the book; there is someone who knows better what's appropriate for you, and damned if you question them.
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