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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The Demolished Man: The Barrier of Our Blindness

the-demolished-man-lester-waldman
Source: speakertoanimals.wordpress.com

I’ve read a lot of articles recently looking back on The Demolished Man, and one thing that amazes me is how little attention is paid to the actual concept of Demolition, and how frequently (in my opinion, anyway) the writer seems to misunderstand the actual themes of the book. They talk about the Espers and the world-building, they talk about the breakneck pace and lack of descriptive detail, they bring up the Freud thing every time, but the social and political commentary that I believe is the most intriguing thing about Bester’s novel is consistently glossed over. I’ve saved this post for last because I think The Demolished Man is about something much more interesting than murder in a telepathic society. Bester hints at several larger ideas throughout the book, but the final chapter is where they all come out into the open. And maybe it’s just because I studied political science, but it seems to me that Bester is not only advocating a philosophy of fundamental human goodness, but making an argument in favor of a socialist society. Or, at the very least, an argument against a capitalist one.

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What Price, Book Blogging?

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The final post on The Demolished Man will be up soon, but until that happens, I wanted to quickly share the results of my recent expedition to the local used bookstore. Bookstores are dangerous places for me; I usually spend too much money and walk out with an armload full of stuff. In this case, I felt justified in my purchase because of this blog, which is a wonderful way of excusing the fact that my partner, whose beauty is exceeded only by her patience, had to deal with me happily frolicking in the science fiction section while I pulled book after book from my reading list off the shelf.

I found eleven Hugo winners I didn’t own on this trip, and probably would found more if I wasn’t already holding one of these with my chin. I’ve never read any of them, of course, but I have some familiarity with Roger Zelazny, and even my limited sci-fi experience has naturally included Asimov, so I’m really looking forward to those. I grabbed two of Vernor Vinge’s three Hugo winners — don’t know what to expect from those, as I had never even heard of him before. I have heard of Stand on Zanzibar, but I have no idea what it’s about as yet. As for Robinson, I already owned Red Mars, but its sequels are the ones that won Hugos, so I’m thrilled to have an excuse to read those. Blue Mars, sadly, was not available.

Picked up two old Heinlein editions, too, which will come in handy early on, because the first part of this project is going to involve so much Heinlein. Robert Sawyer is a mystery to me, as well, but the book seems interesting. Finally, I snagged two more Hugo winners from Lois McMaster Bujold, the unquestioned queen of the Hugo Award, bringing my total, I believe, to three of her six (!) winning novels (I already owned Paladin of Souls). These new ones are both Vorkosigan Saga, so it’ll be exciting to finally get into that.

Anyway, the real winner here is my wallet, because I got all 11 of these books for about 30 bucks. Used bookstores are my favorite thing. Especially when they have lots of sci-fi.

The Demolished Man: What A Twist

Source: Hugo+Nebula Science Fiction Review Project

Every good book has a twist, and if you’ll pardon the innuendo, The Demolished Man has a pair of big ones. The first involves the character of Ben Reich and the revelation of how deteriorated his mind truly is; the second has to do with the nature of Demolition itself. The truth about Demolition bleeds over into the discussion of overall theme, which will be the topic of my final post on this book, so we’ll save that for last and start with Reich, who, as the ultimate unreliable narrator, provides the reader with a beautiful bait-and-switch at the very beginning of the book.

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The Demolished Man: Spoken Like The Future

Source: GoodReads.com

First of all, I should take a moment to admit that writing blog posts on all five days of last week probably wasn’t a great thing to plan on doing during a week when I was scheduled for double shifts on three of those days. Sorry about that.

Second, a friend of mine recently informed me that Alfred Bester was the guy who wrote the Green Lantern oath for DC Comics. So…that’s pretty cool. Even if he apparently hated comics.

That same friend also mentioned the way language and typeface is used in The Demolished Man, which might actually be the most fun part of the book. Just like watching a musician live is always better if you can tell he or she loves playing an instrument, this novel benefits from the obvious joy Bester takes in playing with language. It’s not just that he writes great dialogue or that he excels at using language to convey setting. I mean, he does, but so do other people. The two things that really strike you linguistically about The Demolished Man are name abbreviations straight out of the Net Generation’s wet dreams, and a bizarre and beautiful presentation of telepathic speech. The former may have been done by others at some point, likely in recent years. As for the latter, it’s unique in my experience. Which might not be saying much, given that this blog exists because of my lack of experience, but still.

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The Demolished Man: Capitalists and Cops

“The Demolished Man” by AntheaAndyChan (DeviantArt.com)

Jo Walton has said that one of the reasons she, personally, has never re-read The Demolished Man is because she didn’t enjoy spending time with any of the characters, which…yeah, that kind of makes sense. Ben Reich, the demolished man in question, and certainly the central figure of the story if not its protagonist, starts out as a rage-fueled sociopath who seems to believe that killer instinct is an inherited trait, gains a bit of admiration from the reader as the book goes on in a “at least this psycho is a smart psycho” kind of way, briefly becomes sympathic (a little, maybe) toward the climax when Bester begins tipping his hand as to what’s really going on, but ends the story having been definitively characterized as a man so powerfully immoral that he threatens to derail the entire course of human evolution, and who must be stopped at all costs. Bester goes out of his way to drive home the point that Reich is, quite literally, the worst person in the world. His name alone tells that story; this book was published in 1952, and it’s pretty easy to see what the name “Reich” is referencing. Who wants to hang out with that guy?

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The Demolished Man: A World of Peepers

Source: GoodReads.com

I had never read this book before, nor indeed, anything by Alfred Bester. He’s perhaps best known for his 1956 novel, The Stars My Destination, a book I’ve heard a great deal about and would very much like to read someday. Unfortunately, its year of publication meant it would have fallen under the purview of the 1957 Hugo Awards, which were…weird, to say the least (we’ll get to that later, when I skip 1957). So what seems to be considered Bester’s seminal work does not appear on my list. That said, it’s not nothing to be the winner of the first Hugo for Best Novel, and The Demolished Man is a fascinating book that I highly enjoyed.

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