Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Del Rey, 1953, 179 pages, C$5.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-34296-8

The true measure of a classic is how well it withstands the test of time. Whether or not it’s firmly grounded in a contemporary setting, a classic will carry through universal themes that will resonate decades, even centuries after the work is done. You can watch CASABLANCA today and still marvel at how good the dialogues are, and how well the film is constructed. Even if some details are lost or seem antiquated, the main message still comes through. So it is with Fahrenheit 451.

Everyone’s got their blind spots. In my case, even though I’m a card-carrying SF geek, I had never read one of the most important works of the genre, Ray Bradbury’s 1954 classic Fahrenheit 451. Nor seen the Francois Truffault film. Of course I knew the story, from multiple comments about the work, family members who vividly remembered the film and other various sources. But as for the original work itself; no I hadn’t read it.

Fortunately, cultural deficiencies are easy to correct, and it took barely a day to breeze through Bradbury’s book. Fahrenheit 451 is, like most SF novels of that time, a short novel that doesn’t stray far from its central idea, nor burden the narrative with useless subplots. The story here stays firmly with the character of Guy Montague, a fireman in a future state where firemen are not public guardians, but instruments of state-controlled censorship; they burn books. (“Houses have always been fireproof!” states a character, as if this fantasy needed rationalizing.)

Montague, as is the norm in novels of this type, discovers the forbidden knowledge, rebels, is discovered and tries to escape. Put this book alongside 1984, Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale and not only do you have four variations on the same plot, but you also have an unimaginative High School English course.

But that would be belittling Fahrenheit 451‘s impact, which is even more important today than ever before. No, you’ll say, the first amendment (or local equivalent) has always withstood all attempts at censorship, but the truth is that censorship is now far more devious than ever before… and is now practiced not exclusively by the government, but by seemingly righteous groups and -most ominously- giant corporations trying their damnedest to co-opt the government in doing the dirty work.

Don’t believe me? As of this writing (September 2000),

  • A fundamentalist conservative “liberal” vice-presidential candidate is trying to impose anti-violent standards to film and television “to protect the children” and uphold ill-defined “standards of morality”.
  • The Recording Industry Association of America is trying to shut down Napster, a file-exchange method that could become an alternate delivery channel, by blaming “piracy”, again with ill-defined arguments.
  • The Motion Picture Association of America is suing a magazine for republishing a decryption algorithm to defeat a copy-protection scheme.
  • Lobby groups from entertainment corporation (ie; Disney) have modified copyrights laws to extend them to 100 years after the death of an author, effectively preventing all works made after WWI from becoming public domain.
  • At the same time, individual American states are passing laws that essentially state that all software is now effectively rented from their manufacturer, who then acquires the rights to tell you how to use it.

All of which corral the consumer/citizen in a world when everything is owned by someone, and that someone can dictate what you can say about it. No book-burning, no, but do you seriously think that, if the concept of libraries would be invented today, it wouldn’t be sued in oblivion?

Thank you, Ray Bradbury, for writing something like this, with the power of making me hyperventilate nearly fifty years after. Thank you for such a great book. Thank you for the chief fireman’s speech, which encapsulate all censorship nightmares in one chapter. Thank you for that manhunt which is ever-closer to reality TV. Thank you for a book where the tune is more important than the words, but where no one would dare change any of your words. Thank you for Fahrenheit 451; if you’re remembered only for that, it’ll be a life well-spent.

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