Thursday, 7 June 2012

Fahrenheit 451 review (in memory of Ray Bradbury)

Ray Bradbury. Legend!

Today is officially a sad day following this morning’s news that Ray Bradbury had died aged 91. It’s strange to think that as the writer of a vast array of short stories and novels across a range of genres I’ve only ever got round to reading Fahrenheit 451, perhaps Bradbury’s most well known and regarded book. It remains one of the best novels I’ve ever read; such a compelling and riveting story that also cleverly refrains from ramming any specifically endorsed ideology down your throat and is way more complex than the simple image of book-burning fire-fighters suggests is to be admired. Fahrenheit 451 is quite simply a classic piece of science fiction. Of course, I now have a back-log of catch up reading to undertake as penance (starting with ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’), but there remain many people out there that are still untouched by even Fahrenheit 451. So, in memory of Ray Bradbury, here’s my review of this sci-fi masterwork. Hopefully this will encourage many more of you to find out why this really is a sad day indeed. And hopefully I can take on Ray’s work ethic to finally crack on with my own novel and stop procrastinating on Diablo 3 – “If you want to be a writer, you have to write. Every day. Whether you feel like it or not. You can't write one book and stop. It's work, but the best kind of work”.

The Review

Fahrenheit 451 is often referred to in the same breath as Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World but not always with quite the same vicarious authority. It's generally seen as a lesser book to the insightful political theory of Orwell's mind and the fantastical satirical world of Huxley. But whereas both of these authors used futurism to create dystopia's that were conditioned more by the issues of the world around them at the time (communism, totalitarianism, war fatigue, etc.) Bradbury crafted a story with an astounding prescience that makes it as compelling a read today as it was when first published in 1953.

A quick, concise tale at only 192 pages it dives straight into its main concept - a futuristic world that seems to have gone completely insane. Firemen no longer put out fires, they start them. Yet Bradbury does away with any communist/fascist motifs littered within his contemporaries novels and instead creates a world much more terrifying and relevant to a western audience. Book burning certainly conjures up images of goose-stepping Nazis, but rather than occupy Fahrenheit 451 with themes of brutal oppression and censorship Bradbury settles for something much more at home - apathy.

Indeed, Montag's ignorance, along with that of the society he inhibits, is down to the masses allowing it to happen. They wanted the fun fairs, parlour walls and fast cars and simply allowed for the written word to be extricated away from them. By placing their own happiness first, the people of Montag's world are content with losing the ability to think for themselves. Lately in the modern world, the Internet, reality television (which the parlour walls superbly portray) and media manipulation represent the symptomatic dumbing down processes Bradbury is alluding to. These are mediums which western democracies use to keep their subjects unconsciously subordinate. By keeping the populace interested in things that really do not matter (like Jade Goody’s Martyrdom), they take their eye off the precious little things that are of real concern. The nuclear war that is hinted in the background of Montag's world is a wonderful parallel in this instance. Bradbury's tale also supposes that without the institution (or occupation) of reading, people are also more readily accepting of what is reported to them via the media. The lack of questioning and corroboration of information leads individuals to blindly take a range of irrelevant and unconnected factoids to be an inherent truth. Bradbury's chief concerns on the importance and value of books, therefore, still rings true today.

Definition of irony: the millions of people now buying the e-book version of Fahrenheit 451.

There is, of course, much more to Fahrenheit 451 than just its prescient context. Montag's meeting with Clarisse is no different to Neo waking up in The Matrix, and it's his new found powers (of thinking for himself in this case) that propel the story forward. Yet this journey is not a simple one. The love of his wife, Mildred, is at odds with this new notion of acquiring knowledge, especially as she is unprepared (and unwilling) to accept his new nature. Additionally, it's his fire chief, Captain Beatty, who holds the real key to Montag's eternal soul. Allowed to read a book, will the power of a few emotive words be enough to move Montag to ditch everything that he previously valued in life, or will he resort to his mentor's apathy and the knowledge he is destined to remain unhappy?

It's the cut and thrust of the 'will he, won't he' torment that makes for a tense and suspenseful thriller, which sits comfortably alongside Bradbury's more considered symposium of thought. Luckily this build-up gets the release it deserves as the book shifts gear in the last third, developing into a rip-roaring action-adventure. Compared to the likes of Orwell, it's a welcome relief that Fahrenheit 451 does not get too bogged down in any extensive political ideology. Instead, Bradbury's writing is vivacious throughout, covering relevant and interesting concepts in short shrift, but always with enough depth that few questions are left unanswered. Furthermore, the content runs its course in a swathe of memorable imagery, enjoyable prose and, even with only seven central roles, some wonderful characterisation - none more so than the description of the marvellous mechanical hound (okay, shit name, but it is a beast of exquisite description and verve).

That Fahrenheit 451 moves swiftly between genres without jarring the pleasure of the read is one of its uppermost qualities. That it is also thought-provoking, introspective and relevant today, as all good science-fiction should seek to be, makes it a highly recommended read. Forget about 1984 and Brave New World in this instant, as I'm pretty sure each and every one of us has suffered from a Guy Montag moment previously. Perhaps when we next feel disillusioned and disenfranchised with our place in the world, we'll happen upon a chance encounter with a copy of Fahrenheit 451 (our own Clarisse McClellan if you will). We can then beam with delight that we haven't squandered the pleasure of reading and have maintained our own cognition in the face of ever increasing apathy. Perhaps it will even give us the courage to rise up and do something with our own wretched lives. Fahrenheit 451 is Bradbury's masterwork and a splendid book in every sense. It’s also much better than 1984 and a Brave New World.

There, I said it...

No comments: