Which one was right, Brave New World or 1984? Are we living in a hedonistic mirage or a totalitarian face-stamping global regime?
The conversation over prophetic twentieth-century texts often homes in on these two admirable books, but another classic dystopian novel pokes its head from behind the curtain, asking to be regarded: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. It’s the riotous, mega-talented sci-fi writer’s most famous work (though I’d argue not quite his best) and follows the life of a fireman, Guy Montag, whose main job is not to squelch housefires but to burn books, and the houses that hold them. This fireman is a member of a brigade tasked with the destruction of literature. With the destruction of meaning.
In the novel’s introduction, fantasy writer Neil Gaiman notes that speculative fiction, while cautionary, isn’t about the future but about a characteristic of the present world. As such, the issue gets highlighted from a creative angle and floods it with a sense of urgency. So, what is the warning in Bradbury’s classic dystopian tale?
Culture: To Build or to Burn?
The novel overlaps a good deal with Huxley’s Brave New World. Both societies are technologically advanced, with traditional institutions and morality long gone. Citizens live in a perpetual condition of distraction. Bradbury’s tale might hint a bit more at the censorial; Huxley’s hot take was that there would be no need to ban books because eventually no one would want to read them. But in Fahrenheit 451, there’s room for the literarily curious. Not everyone is caught under a spell of technological speed and savvy. Remnants of the human, of the history of the world, and of truth, goodness, and beauty, haunt the story. The first couple of pages detail Montag’s sordid delight in burning books (Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper burns), with the classic opening lines: “It was a pleasure to burn.” Montag’s obsession with burning books is indicative of a world that takes more delight in burning than building, in spreading chaos more than creating culture. However, he soon meets a girl named Clarisse on his street, who is “seventeen and crazy” and does what a normal person in that society finds bizarre: she walks around looking at things. For a subtle reason he can’t quite pinpoint, Clarisse is the vessel that sparks Montag’s awakening:
He was not happy. He said the words to himself. He recognized this as the true state of affairs. He wore his happiness like a mask and the girl had run off across the lawn with the mask and there was no way of going to knock on her door and ask for it back (p. 9).
Back inside his house, Montag finds his wife lying down with her “radios” in her ears, immersed in a constant cacophony of sound, music, and talk. Bradbury describes her insular, sonic world as an ocean, with waves constantly lapping ashore and keeping her ever wakeful but never alert:
Every night the waves came in and bore her off on their great tides of sound, floating her, wide-eyed, toward morning. There had been night in the last two years that Mildred [Montag’s wife] had not swum that sea, had no gladly gone down in it for the third time (p. 10).
Drowning in an Ocean of Noise
It makes sense that Bradbury chose tiny radios as the invasive technology of the day, since his novel appeared in the 1950s when the television was still breaking its teeth in American living rooms. The radio was the source of news, music, and entertainment for thousands of families. But Mildred’s tragic character is a specter for the modern man, too; the age of Airpods, Spotify Premium, and podcasts ensures us that we never need to leave the digital ocean of noise. Despite all the transhumanist predictions of the singularity, it’s hard to dismiss the fact that to a certain degree we’ve already merged with our machines and can’t formulate our daily experience without them. I for one own a good pair of headphones and am an avid music listener, but the more constant the influx of sound, the more uncomfortable moments of silence become. The more foreign and “insane” a character like Clarisse becomes, too. The irony is, of course, that Clarisse is the most human character in the novel. Her mere presence upends Montag’s facade and forces him to face the meaninglessness of his life.
Fahrenheit 451 is a book about many things, as Gaiman mentions in his introduction. It takes a few reads to elucidate just a percentage of its great themes. Chief among them, however, is the danger of forgetting the past. For Bradbury, who never went to college but spent many of his waking hours scouring libraries, books are a channel to the prior generations of humanity and help us reckon with our place in the cosmos. But with the radios of noise always clanging in our ears, beckoning us to forget, reading and remembering is a revolutionary act. Bradbury’s classic is a good place to start.