Something Burning This Way Comes

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/.a/6a00d8341c630a53ef01543792f68b970c-pi
Source: Los Angeles Times, Steve Castillo / Associated Press Photos

So I’m currently reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which is a weird experience for a few reasons. First of all, as I explained over on The Reading List, Fahrenheit 451 didn’t technically win the Hugo Award in 1954. It would have been eligible that year, but there were no Hugo Awards in 1954, a curious gap right at the beginning of the award’s history. It was, however, one of the books to retroactively win the Hugo, selected for that honor in 2004.

That’s not the only reason I’m reading it, though. It’s the only retro Hugo winner on the list, and that’s not going to change. I already have enough sci-fi to keep this blog going for a very, very long time, and I don’t really have any desire to read The Sword in the Stone, or yet another Heinlein novel, or anything by A.E. van Vogt. That isn’t to say these books aren’t worth reading, but they’re not compelling enough to me, personally, to merit expanding an already massive undertaking.

Fahrenheit is different, though, because of my childhood connections to Ray Bradbury. I won’t go so far as to say I was a Bradbury fanatic as a kid – I was well above the reading level for my age, but a lot of his stuff was still over my head, and I never had the all-consuming passion to consume everything he’d ever written like I did for young adult authors like Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville – but the Bradbury I did read stuck with me for a long time. The Martian Chronicles, A Sound of Thunder, and most of all, Something Wicked This Way Comes, were stories that resonated with me into adulthood, which is something I can’t quite say for My Teacher is an Alien. I still remember how disconcerted A Sound of Thunder left me, and how drawn I was to the “good vs. evil” themes of Something Wicked. It’s been years since I read or re-read Bradbury, but looking back, he was an enormous influence on the type of fiction I would enjoy throughout my lifetime.

I also feel a stranger, more personal connection to Bradbury, which grew as I learned more about him, the way he lived, the things he believed. I’ve never had a driver’s license, preferring to get around on my bike or via public transporation. Bradbury did the same. He was married to the same woman, Marguerite McClure, for 56 years; she was the only woman he ever dated. While I can’t claim quite the same longevity, I’ve only had a meaningful relationship with one woman in my life, and I plan on sustaining that for 56 years, at least. Bradbury was raised Baptist, but his parents weren’t exactly regulars at church, and throughout his life, he refused to allow his religious beliefs to be strictly defined, or confined to a carefully-labeled box. He probably believed in God a little more strongly than I do, but I can very much relate to his open-mindedness when it came to religion, and his unwillingness to identify his beliefs as anything other than “my beliefs.”

And of course, like me, Bradbury loved books. Loved them.

It’s funny, all these points of identification seem so traditional to me. Getting around in an antiquated fashion, finding one woman and sticking with her, religious belief…it feels bizarrely conservative. As I’ve said before, I’m about as politically progressive as they come, and I would hardly describe myself as a traditionalist. Riding my bike and taking the bus isn’t something I do out of nostalgia for some sort of long-lost good old days; I do it because it’s economical and good for the environment. I waited longer than most guys before having sex, but not because I believed in abstinence before marriage; I was just holding out for a real connection with someone. As for religious beliefs, hell, I was the president of the Secular Student Alliance in college and have the word “atheist” tattooed on my back. It’s only in recent years that I’ve become less of a hardcase atheist asshole and more willing to find a place in my life for spiritual belief, even if it has nothing to do with any established church.

Bradbury and I seem to have reached the same conclusions for different reasons. He was a traditionalist, you see, or at the very least, certainly not a futurist. “People ask me to predict the future,” he famously said, “when all I want to do is prevent it.” This is a fascinating statement from a science fiction author — we typically think of these writers as being the types of people who longingly dream of fantastic futures yet to come, not people who long for time to stop, that the future might never arrive. It’s particularly fascinating as the context surrounding Bradbury’s relationship with books, and in turn, his decision to write Fahrenheit 451.

Bradbury loved books, and he hated those who would ban or burn books…but he also expressed contempt for the technology he feared would replace books, and indeed, had already started replacing books over the course of his lifetime. He was a staunch advocate for public libraries, but didn’t allow any of his books to become e-books until 2011, when Fahrenheit 451 was published electronically on the condition that it be made available for download by library users. He was an early supporter of computers in the mid-80s, but by the end of his life, the proliferation of cell phones and the internet had soured him on modern technology. Only a few years after Fahrenheit was published, Bradbury was already railing against people walking around with headphones attached to their portable radios, the prophecy of Montag’s wife come to fruition. We may not live in a society where the job of firemen is to burn books, but we certainly live in a world of voices constantly whispering in our ears, transfixing us.

Having grown up in this world and watched it progress faster and faster along these lines, I find I have a complicated relationship with technology. Like Bradbury, I think it can be a dangerously addictive distraction, not just from books, but from thought. Unlike Bradbury, I think it can also be an amazing tool, and I have no desire to give up my own devices, to stop listening to the whispers. I’m writing this blog, after all, on a platform that Bradbury could never have foreseen when he wrote Fahrenheit 451. The whispers in question are not isolating us from our community, as they did for poor Millie Montag, but turning into a new kind of community that has the potential to stretch across the globe (I wrote a piece about this idea for YES! Magazine, by the way; if you’re interested, you can find it here). So once again, where Bradbury turns traditionalist, I find myself leaning the other way, though I sympathize with his perspective and often share it, albeit for different reasons.

This has almost turned into the first Fahrenheit 451 post, and maybe that’s what it is, even though I’m not that far into the book. I just wanted to explain what I’ve taken with me into this first reading: a love of Ray Bradbury’s work, a feeling of connectedness I don’t have with very many authors…and some serious questions about what he’s actually trying to say. Unlike a lot of Hugo winners — and possibly a factor in it being awarded a retro Hugo — this book is an undisputed classic, which makes it even stranger that I’m approaching it as a Bradbury fan who’s never read fucking Fahrenheit 451. But knowing what I know about the author, I’m not prepared to instantly anoint it just yet. I’m really looking forward to dissecting this one and deciphering what it’s about, finding the social and political messages and putting them under a microscope. That’s something you just can’t do with T.H. White, and that’s why Fahrenheit made the list when the other retro Hugo winners didn’t.

That, and because I really love Ray Bradbury.

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