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Fahrenheit 451: 50th Anniversary Edition
Ray Bradbury
HarperCollins, 184 pages

Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury is one of the greatest SF and fantasy writers of our time. Born in Waukegan, Illinois, in 1920, he authored such classics of the genre as The Martian Chronicles (1950) and Farenheit 451 (1953) by his early 30s, and continues to produce important work today.
In 1990, while at a summit meeting in New York, Mikhail Gorbachov made a special trip to visit Bradbury, his "favourite author," whose works he claimed to have read in the original versions. Bradbury is American fantasy's great ambassador.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Dinosaur Tales
SF Site Review: From the Dust Returned
SF Site Review: Dandelion Wine
SF Site Review: Green Shadows, White Whale
SF Site Review: Ahmed and the Oblivion Machines
SF Site Review: Driving Blind
SF Site Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes
SF Site Review: The Illustrated Man
The Illustrated Man Excerpt
The Ray Bradbury Theatre

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Chris Przybyszewski

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What is there to say about Fahrenheit 451? It has been around for just over 50 years, and it thus merits a HarperCollins Publisher's anniversary edition. Without this most recent recognition, no one would have heard of the piece of trash.

That was a joke.

Fahrenheit 451 is one of the more remarkable books of our time. Sure, the text has its share of warts. The characters are more like caricatures, over the top and thin in their complexity. Ray Bradbury indulges his inner high-school writer with his strong use of comparisons which, for example, describes the overhead sound of bombers as "if two giant hands had torn ten thousand miles of black linen down the seam." And I am not going to talk about descriptions, such as "The subway fled past him, cream-tile, jet-black, cream-tile, jet-black, numerals and darkness, more darkness and the total adding itself." Moreover, the ending is simplistic and idealistic, where the well read of society emerge from their homeless shelters to save a post-apocalyptic world.

But still.

The caricatures are appropriate. The only fellow with depth and dynamics is Guy Montag, and that is because he is the only human struggling for some truth. By my definition, a full character is one who is making that effort, whatever truth it may be. Montag is -- for those not familiar with the story -- a fireman. His job is to set fire to books so that no one will read and consequently understand the hopelessness of reality.

The book burning is not a government mandated censorship, as in the case of 1984. Instead, it is a society-built degradation of the written word. Society has rejected the black and white messages bound in leather and paper. Burning books is better, according to most of the citizens of his world (including his suicidal wife), than to watch TV. Most the people in this world demand live inside entertainment, ignoring those inner voices that ask, "Is this it?"

Montag must find more. He must find it for himself, and he believes he must find it for society.

The incredible use of comparison does serve a purpose. Bradbury admits his overuse of metaphor and simile in the afterword, but the writing style creates a pulpy, film-noir weirdness to the words. The comparisons are sometimes wonderful, sometimes outrageous. They create a tone of 'hey, this can't be real,' while the content (human apathy, the limitation of the written word) pounds the reader's reality. The disharmony is symphonic. The previous sentence is a metaphor, for those paying attention.

I said I wasn't going to talk about the descriptions, but here's another example: "It was a stroll through another store, and his currency strange and unusable there, and his passion cold, even when he touched the wood and plaster and clay." These over-the-top descriptions do some of the same work as the comparisons.

The ending echoes Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which Huck and Jim return to the hometown, and all is well in the world. Well, not really, as Twain well knows. Tom is still enslaved. Huck's "rescue" from one slaver delivers Jim to his former slaver. A helplessness moves past dramatic irony. No one in the story notices a permeating stink because each person no longer notices the odor. Huck (and Twain's) solution is to move out of society, to head west into the not-yet-civilized Western America.

The same goes in Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury is acutely aware that books are useless; they are physical objects. They are pieces of paper with words on them. Worse, 85 percent (a rough estimate) of those words are not worth the paper on which they are printed. To see books as the saviors of humanity is not naïve; it is dangerous. Rely on your survival manual in the middle of the desert, and you will probably die of thirst.

The absolute value of books is separate from their personal value that has lifted the souls and opened the minds to countless individuals. But everyone in Bradbury's world, including the exiled book readers themselves, have lost that personal love for the feel of text on paper and the smell of vellum as it ages yellow.

Ray Bradbury's conscious control of these elements, among others, shows his craft. Disagree with his techniques, but do not disagree that he employed those techniques with a purpose. His sentiments are not new. Lots of people have questioned the limits of language (for more on this, Google Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction Theory). The style Bradbury uses, the pulpy sci-fi style that is one reason this book still runs strong in popularity and relevance a half century later.

Fahrenheit 451 has become (and, I think, was designed to be) that thing that caused books to burn. The text or its author offers no answers to the question poised. Instead, if offers a story about a man seeking a truth. Where many forgettable texts use the soapbox, Bradbury used the microscope and telescope.

Observationalists like Bradbury have held the literary court for the past century (if not before). What is the next step? The problem of the human condition has been defined by Bradbury and his peers (of whom there are few), so where's the big leap forward that will not only acknowledge reality at hand, but which will also suggest a solution that will evolve the human of the species? Possibly, there is no answer in this generation or the next. Perhaps humans will go extinct before realizing an answer to even one of its defining questions.

Possibly, there is no Bradbury 2.0.

Until there is, keep your copy of Fahrenheit 451 handy. You never know when some person needs a fire's warmth.

Copyright © 2005 Chris Przybyszewski

Chris learned to read from books of fantasy and science fiction, in that order. And any time he can find a graphic novel that inspires, that's good too.


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