Fahrenheit 451: Uncensored (aka The Media is the Metaphor)

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Fahrenheit 451 is basically a work of prose poetry, beautifully written but lacking most of the qualities that traditionally make up a novel. There are no fully-realized characters, and to be honest, there’s barely even a functional plot, as the events of the book unfold in dream-like, ambiguous fashion in an attempt to drive the reader promptly from one allegorical point to another. Understand that this is not criticism; I’ve never been a huge poetry reader, but if a writer as good as Ray Bradbury wants to write a novel-length poem, who am I to argue? But it is a poem, and it’s written in such a way that neither the plot nor the characters are rich enough – distracting enough – to get in the way of the message being delivered.

But what is that message, exactly? When I first started writing about Fahrenheit 451, I spent some time on the fact that it is considered an essential classic, having become known over the years as THE book about censorship. That’s where it exists in the cultural consciousness – if you don’t believe me, type “books about censorship” into Google. Fahrenheit 451 is the first and most prominent result, with almost all the others being either controversial books that were censored, or non-fiction works about the history of censorship. Fahrenheit 451 is and will always be the Great Anti-Censorship Novel.

Except it isn’t. Nor was it ever intended to be.

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Fahrenheit 451: The Symbolic People

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When last we visited the fire-blackened dystopia of Fahrenheit 451, we learned two key things. First, I didn’t enjoy the book quite as much as I thought I would, and second, that has nothing to do with Ray Bradbury’s powers as a wordsmith, which are staggering. Take any sentence from Fahrenheit consisting of more than five words, and I would probably be perfectly happy reading just that sentence over and over again for hours on end. When it comes to the English language, Bradbury is a master craftsman.

So why wasn’t I completely enamored of Fahrenheit? It has a great deal to do with the characters populating Bradbury’s book-burning hellscape. I like a good hellscape as much as the next guy, but a great book has to show it to me through the eyes of interesting people. I would never suggest that Bradbury doesn’t know that, but in this case, he seems not to care. Fahrenheit 451 is more of an allegory than an actual story. Its characters are symbolic representations, not people. They serve a purpose for Bradbury’s message, but they don’t grow or change — not even Guy Montag.

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Fahrenheit 451: The Price of Fame, The Perils of Metaphor

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 book cover from 1976.
Publisher: Grafton. Illustrator: Steve Crisp. Source: Slate.com

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.

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Something Burning This Way Comes

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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.

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