Hugo: Fahrenheit 451 (1954/2004)

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Read May 12-14 2016

Premise: In the future, firemen are the censorship arm of the surveillance state burning books (which are illegal) to ensure the cohesion of a society built on sensationalism and shallowness.

Verdict: I had read this book a long time ago and my local library did a read-along of it in May. It’s small enough to knock out in a few hours tops so I re-read it, loved it, and headed off to the library discussion which was all doom, gloom, and terror. Sci-fi is all about speculating on the dark paths our actions may lead us down in the future, but I think something about this group (who were all at least 50 or older and most claimed to hate science fiction) just made them more inclined to declare that the entire world was degenerate and our society was failing. Also, if you’ve read any of my previous Hugo project reviews, lately I’ve gotten free of a lifelong abusive situation and have been working on my brain. All fun things. So, with that preface, here’s what I thought about Fahrenheit 451 on this, the xth time I’ve read it.

When I first read this book I was convinced it was about how stupid our culture is because people don’t want to think. I was an angry teenager who loved books and learning and I was relentlessly bullied for it. Fahrenheit 451 felt like a vindication to me. Now that I’m not an angry teenager it still feels like a vindication, but less of intelligence and more of compassion. Our discussion at the library eventually got into Cold War paranoia which was an astute conversation topic. But I feel like it’s worth noting the censorship aspects not from a totalitarian angle, but more from the way Bradbury presents a culture of despair.

Reading this novel is very familiar, not because I’ve read it before, but because our society becomes more and more recognizable in its dystopian future. The novel presents a utopian infrastructure (with what’s basically a hyperloop, virtual reality television, ubiquitous transportation etc.) but a totalitarian rule of information. The head fireman Beatty does plenty of philosophizing, but it’s explicitly stated that society itself decided it no longer wanted anything to do with critical thought. Ideas in books became “too confusing” because you could never reach blanket consensus. People willfully gave up their right to think and instead consume pre-packaged sensationalistic media. As someone currently living with a disagreeable roommate who alternately blasts CNN or Bravo, reading this book in this house was surreal. “Sitting around and talking” is weird because “what do you talk about?” Your life is judged by what you consume and the populace is kept busy by manufacturing need in consumers to strive for more and “better” goods. The culture in the novel is so disconnected that they literally have a special “handyman team” of medical professionals who go around “cleaning out” the stomachs of the plethora of people who attempt to commit suicide every day. The McCarthyist paranoia is rampant, but it just emphasizes that American culture on the whole has never recovered a sense of trust in others. We still have a default mode of “everyone is out to get you.”

What’s even more prescient, perhaps, is the notion of a live high-speed televised chase that has to have narrative structure. The Hound chasing Montag at the end narrativizes chunks of life in ways that satisfy the culturally constructed notions of justice and payoff. It’s all about eyes, not information. This book is so short, but it’s creepily like Bradbury just peeled a little window through time and cast judgment on what he saw. Good sci-fi is like that.

At any rate, for me the burning of books became less about censorship and more about the books symbolizing critical thought. Yes, censorship is bad. But censorship also implies that some part of the culture wants the information they have no access to. Either that, or that there is a state-sanctioned brainwashing going on a la nationalistic book burnings. There’s something eerie in reading about the narcissistic disaffection of society in a novel written in 1954. Maybe there’s nothing particularly special about 2016 except the speed at which information flows.

I mean, this book is a classic. One of the must-reads of American literature. So go read it.

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