Great Prophecy Does Not Make Great Literature

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Title: Fahrenheit 451

Rating: 3 Stars

It’s tough for me to rate science fiction books written long ago that take place in a distant future that is now the time in which I live. How much do I ding them for what they got wrong? How much should the conditions of the present day influence my opinion of the work written long ago? I need to tread a careful line.

So it is with Fahrenheit 451. It was written in 1953, in the ashes of the totalitarianism of WWII and the start of the cold war with the Soviet Union. As a science fiction writer in that year trying to visualize the future, I can easily imagine that a grim fate seems most likely.

So it is here, books are banned and people caught with books are punished by burning all of their possessions. There is the constant scream of fighter jets overhead of a nation constantly at war. The populace is numbed by constant streams of mindless television playing its images on all four walls of the room. Firemen no longer put out fires but are the ones that start them.

Out of this milieu comes Montag, a fireman that, at the beginning of the book, enjoys his job, but as time moves on, begins to question, not only his job, but society at large. He meets a carefree young woman named Clarisse, who opens his mind to stimulating conversation. He watches with horror as his wife blithely tries to kill herself due to basic ennui and then wakes up the next morning all cheerful as if nothing happened. He sees a woman, caught with books, voluntarily set herself on fire so that she can die with her books.

All of this leads Montag to believe that there must be something more to life, and maybe that can be found in books. He tries to learn but is stifled by his own ignorance. His chief, Beatty, catches him, arrests him, and orders Montag to burn his own house down. After doing so, in a confrontation with Beatty, Montag murders Beatty and goes on the run.

The novel concludes with the city being destroyed by war and Montag ends up with a troupe of vagrants that have memorized works of literature. They vaguely plan to rebuild society from the ashes of the city (like a phoenix).

In terms of prognostication, Bradbury does a respectable job. Although not banned, fewer people read books then ever. As televisions have gotten larger and larger, they have become to assume ever larger positions in people’s home, if not their lives. As people grow more isolated in their cocoon-like homes, there seem to be ever fewer bonds of emotional intimacy available. And yes, the US has effectively been at war now for over fifteen years. Writing from the year 1953, this is not an unimpressive achievement.

But yet, the writing is at best ham-fisted. The characters are used to drive the action, not to drive emotion or growth. Montag, Beatty, Mildred (Montag’s wife), and Faber (a fearful intellectual trying to guide Montag) are all at best caricatures. It’s a thin book with thin characters and a pretty thin plot.

I appreciate the place that this work deserves in the pantheon of mid-twentieth century science fiction. This is just a genre that does not do a whole lot for me generally, so I can’t give it an enthusiastic recommendation.

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