SciFi Discussion – Fahrenheit 451

On February the 21st 2012, Manchester SciFi book club met at the Madlab to discuss Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451.

The novel presents a future American society where reading is outlawed and firemen start fires to burn books. Written in the early years of the Cold War, the novel is a critique of what Bradbury saw as issues in American society of the era.

The novel has been the subject of various interpretations, primarily focusing on the historical role of book burning in suppressing dissenting ideas. Bradbury has stated that the novel is not about censorship, but a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature, which leads to a perception of knowledge as being composed of factoids, partial information devoid of context.


Did We Like It?

The consensus was generally positive, which was borne out by our average score of 4.1 out of 5.

One aspect that we particularly liked was the descriptions, for example, when Montag was floating down the river, which was especially tangible. Clearly Bradbury has a flair for dramatic effect, the scene where everybody opens their doors at once as Montag disappears into the river would make excellent cinema!

Was it SciFi?

Some of us weren’t so sure. Fahrenheit 451 is certainly set in a dystopain future which uses technology. It was written in 1953 so the technology in the book has to be compared to technology of that era. Things like television screens that covered 3 or 4 walls in a house and seashell radios that fitted into your ear would be much more futuristic in the 1950s. There was also an 8 legged half robotic hunting dog, which reminded us of the Rat Thing in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. We decided that on balance, Fahrenheit 451 is science fiction.

I am the God of Hellfire!

By design, the characters were cold and insane. The women were all one dimensional, only watching television on the parlour walls or listening to their seashell radios, typical of the way in which women were portrayed in other novels from that era. Mrs Montag was particularly dizzy, although in the end she does report Guy Montag the authorities. The men didn’t have anything of substance in their lives either. They sat around and played cards and set the mechanical dog on rats.

The everyday lives of the characters were tame and soulless, with the exceptions of driving around in their cars at 200 mph, they had little excitement. It didn’t bother them when people died, since that only happened to other people and wasn’t something that was discussed in their society. There was no religion, Christ was turned into a character on in the television “family”.

Most of the jobs in their society appeared to be automated, creating a life of luxury boredom, verging on suicide. There was no space to talk or think in their world. Even former English professor Faber had sunk into a state of inertness. Montag had to rip pages out of possibly the only copy of the bible in existence before Faber was motivated to take action.

In the edition that most of us read there was a foreword by Ray Bradbury in which he suggests that Clarisse McCellan could have been brought back from the dead. Some of us wondered whether she actually had been killed in the story, perhaps Beatty lied to Montag about her death. We thought though, that the story would have been worse if she had remained in it. She plays her part, elucidating things for Montag. If she had lived she would have been a spare part. “Definitely kill her!” we exclaimed.

Fire chief Beatty was the hardest to work out since he himself seemed to be conflicted. Was he the villain? It appears that he tried to save Montag from himself, but does he really try? Does every fireman really go through a spell of curiosity about books, and did Beatty himself go through it?

Time to Burn

We postulated about the time line over which the books existed and how long it took for them to become vilified. People had gradually stopped reading before society began actively rejecting books. How quickly were books banned? We think that there were books when Beatty was a child and wondered if he read when he was young. Perhaps he did and was bullied because of it, himself turning from victim into the oppressor.

There was certainly a time period over which the society changed, it did not happen over night. Fahrenheit 451 is about this culture shift, rather than about censorship.

This culture shift had led to society being dumbed down. In conversation about presidential candidates, Mrs Montag asks why the opposition’s candidate was short when he was standing against a tall candidate, i.e. image is more important than policy. We regretted that our society does seem to be heading that way.

Twisted Fire Starter

Would Ray Bradbury be happy with our society? Does technology such as wall sized television necessarily lead to porridgy brains? Bradbury clearly thinks that depth should be maintained. As long as we are creators, not just consumers, and as long as we think and talk about things, technology will not turn us into automatons.

Is fire a good bad thing, we wondered? The destructive power of the flame thrower burning of books was obviously bad, but later on in the book Montag felt the warmth of the camp fire. We concluded that was both good and bad, depending upon how it was used.

Apparently an asbestos bound edition of Fahrenheit 451 was released. We were glad that we didn’t have copies of it, since the pages were still paper and thus flammable, and not everyone likes hardbacks.

Relight My Fire

Would it be possible for a convincing book to be written today in which intellect is destroyed though the burning of digital media? Since the written word can be changed easily after publication perhaps controlling forces would be able to manipulate the masses much more easily in the digital age. We conceded that society would not stand up to the suppression of books or other media because people are conformist, despite recent stiff opposition to the introduction of anti-piracy laws in the USA. As is the case in the novel, there would be people who would remember things and knowledge would inevitably rise again like a phoenix from the ashes.

Summary

Fahrenheit 451 was well received and offered plenty of topics for discussion. The dystopian future it portrays is credible, the quality descriptions and drama were appreciated. Although there was some uncertainty, we decided that Fahrenheit 451 is SciFi.

No copies of Fahrenheit 451 or any other books were ignited or burnt at our meeting.

Quote of the evening:

X-Factor is not a fair representation of a democratic system, if it is, we’d have UN intervention in the UK!

So what about you? Do you agree or disagree with any or all of the points raised above? Perhaps you would like to add something that was not covered? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think!

Manchester Sci-Fi Book Club Contacts

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Next Sci-Fi Book:

  • March 20th – The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi advocated by Guy

SciFi Books for Following Months:

  • April 17th – The Difference Engine by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling advocated by Carlos

Following that, dates to be confirmed:

  • The Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells advocated by Tom Jenkins
  • Brasyl by Ian McDonald advocated by Alex
  • Embassy Town by China Meiville advocated by Tom Swingler
  • Excession by Iain M. Banks advocated by Tim
  • Reamde by Neal Stephenson advocated by ???

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