So, it’s been a little while, huh? Sorry about that. The American people elected a racist, sexist game show host their president and I briefly struggled with the relevance of maintaining a blog about 60-year-old science fiction novels, but don’t worry, I’ve come to my senses. After all, the messages of these books could be even more important as we move into the Age of Trump, and lord knows I’d rather read these authors than the news right now. And hey, how fitting is it that we kick off 2017 with one of sci-fi’s most overt pieces of message fiction? Let’s jump into Fahrenheit 451.
In the context of this project, Fahrenheit 451 is a strange book to write about. Despite the prestige of the Hugo Award, most of the books that have won it are incredibly obscure to anyone who isn’t steeped in science fiction. There are some famous novels on the list – Starship Troopers, Dune, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – but for every one of those there are ten others that the cultural mainstream has never heard of. And that’s great for me, because I can go in-depth on these stories and talk about what they mean without feeling like I’m saying things that have already been said a million times before (and are readily available online). The obscurity is a big part of what makes the project so fun.
(It’s also great because it means I’ve been able to find most of these novels at used bookstores for $3-4 apiece, incidentally.)
But Fahrenheit 451 was awarded a Hugo in 2004, 50 years after it would have been eligible to win the award in 1954, a year in which the second Hugo Awards simply didn’t happen. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that one of the big reasons it won that retro Hugo was because it is a classic. Actually, scratch that. It’s a CLASSIC. Fahrenheit 451 is one of the big ones, having become one of the most well-known sci-fi novels of all time and required school reading for multiple generations. I decided to include it in this project, as opposed to the other retro Hugo winners, largely because I felt a vague sense of shame that I’d never read it. That’s how much Fahrenheit 451 means in the broad scale of literature.
And of course, there’s been a whole lot already written about it, which somewhat narrows down the field of what I can add to the conversation. You already know about the core anti-censorship theme, right? You know that burning books is bad, right? I don’t want to retread any of that, though I do have some thoughts about how the theme plays in 2017, when many of us are reading books on LCD screens, or having them read to us by our smart phones. I do have some things to say about this book, but honestly, the weirdest thing about it for me is that my first takeaway is this: I liked The Demolished Man better.
This isn’t to say Fahrenheit isn’t a good or important novel. It’s both those things. But when you read a CLASSIC, you go in with certain expectations of mind-blowing quality…though if I’m being honest, a lifetime of public education should probably have prepared me for having those expectations undercut. There are many factors that lead to a novel achieving CLASSIC status, and quality is only one of them. What is being said and when it’s being said can often trump how it’s being said, and the messages of this book have perhaps been compelling enough, over the years, to overcome its flaws. Bradbury’s prose is stunning, as always; his world-building is spectacular, as always. But his characters leave a lot to be desired, and the messages, at the very least, are due for reexamination.
That said, let me be clear: The prose is stunning.
“With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.”
That’s the third line of Fahrenheit 451. The third sentence. If you weren’t already in love with Bradbury’s writing, how can you not fall for it after a sentence like that? Few authors, especially in science fiction, walk the line between poetry and prose the way Bradbury does. The fact that he was also a playwright, and that Fahrenheit is also a play, should surprise precisely no one. The novel is largely constructed as a series of monologues, with each actor taking his or her turn at the front of the stage, each in turn speaking to Guy Montag, the protagonist, and serving as the catalyst for his experience: Clarisse (awakening), Beatty (doubt), Faber (affirmation), Beatty again (fear), and Granger (resolve). I’ll elaborate more on that during my discussion of the characters specifically, but the point is that Fahrenheit 451, even in book form, is actually a play, and both the characters and the third-person narrator speak as though they were in a play.
The use of metaphor alone is incredible, and one of the most memorable and compelling elements of Bradbury’s writing in general. Montag holds his hands a “great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world.” Later, when he thinks of how his friendship with Clarisse has made him less satisfied with his job, he frames it as, “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.”
Everyone else in the book gets in on the metaphoric action, too. According to Beatty, the novel’s turncoat intellectual villain, “a book is a loaded gun in the house next door,” but he also marvelously describes his former love of books: “I ate them like salad, books were my sandwich for lunch, my tiffin and dinner and midnight munch. I tore out the pages, ate them with salt, doused them with relish, gnawed on the bindings, turned the chapters with my tongue! Books by the dozen, the score and the billion. I carried so many home I was hunchbacked for years. Philosophy, art history, politics, social science, the poem, the essay, the grandiose play, you name ’em, I ate ’em.”
Metaphors appear as well in various exhortations to rebel or to escape. “When they give you lined paper, write the other way.” “Stand at the top of a cliff and jump off and build your wings on the way down.” “Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge.”
Of course, Bradbury is not immune from occasionally falling in love with his own writing style and going a little overboard. Toward the end of the book, Granger says, “We’re going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next month and the next year. And when they ask us what we’re doing, you can say, We’re remembering. That’s where we’ll win out in the long run. And someday we’ll remember so much that we’ll build the biggest goddamn steamshovel in history and dig the biggest grave of all time and shove war in it and cover it up.”
Metaphor is great, and Bradbury is great at using it, but that one is a mess. A beautiful mess, but still a mess. That’s the danger of writing the way Bradbury does. Sometimes the words fuse together seamlessly, alchemically, and become something more than the sum of their parts. And sometimes the alchemy doesn’t take, and you’re left with a bunch of very pretty words, glued together in frustration because they wouldn’t fit properly.
Bradbury’s prose reads like poetry and his dialogue belongs on the stage, but writing a novel as lyrical theater only works if the novel also functions as a novel. This is where Fahrenheit 451 stumbles, and as I’ve already intimated, I think it begins with the characters. And there will be more to come on that subject very soon.