Friday, July 15, 2011

Adventure classics -- Burn, baby, burn

Fahrenheit 451

by Ray Bradbury


A few weeks ago I mentioned screenwriting teacher Robert McKee’s justification for writing historical drama -- to view contemporary antagonisms from the safe distance of the past. But there are other ways to provide safe distance.  One is from the viewpoint of the future. This is the place of science fiction, at least of the subcategory social science fiction. And this is the territory of Ray Bradbury’s most famous work, the dystopian “Fahrenheit 451.”

First published as a book in 1953 (after a shorter version appeared in “Galaxy Science Fiction,” it presents a future society which bans reading as an aid to critical thought. A society which employs “firemen” not to prevent fires (buildings have been fireproofed by then) but to set them. Specifically, to set fire to books.

As with all book burnings, books were only the shorthand for what was really banned. As the character Faber explains to renegade fireman Guy Montag, “Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”

In his work, Faber argues for the protection of relatively small numbers of people devoted to thought, railing against “the most dangerous enemy to truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority. Oh God, the terrible tyranny of the majority.”

In the coda to the 1979 edition, Bradbury himself,  weirdly curmudgeonly, turns the point of his book on its head, arguing that “. . .it is a mad world and it will get madder
if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conversationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics.”

Well, no one has ever accused Bradbury of being the most clear-thinking of writers.  Science fiction author and critic Damon Knight criticized him for failure to do what authors of the fantastic refer to as world building -- the creation of unique, fully-imagined worlds. But Bradbury himself describes his writing as myth -- and what forlorn but beautiful myths he spins.

(Next Friday: From the alienation of Bradbury’s 1950s to the aliens of Ursula LeGuinn, another way of looking at the future in “The Left Hand of Darkness.”)

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