Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury
Fahrenheit 451 Cover

Fahrenheit 451 -- Surprisingly boring

Tar Daddoo

What is the Science Fiction Premise?

Fahrenheit 451 envisions a world in which literature -- books of fiction, essays, histories -- have been outlawed. Some books, like comic books and technical manuals, are still permitted. Unlike the world we know in which firemen are trained to put out fires. The firemen in Fahrenheit 451 are trained to burn books whenever they are found.

Fahrenheit 451 also envisions a form of entertainment that takes up a full room, is highly visual, interactive, and very involving for those who use it. Given that Bradbury wrote the first version of the story in 1950, this seems rather prescient.

Is the science of the premise explored?

There is very little explanation of why books were banned. We receive some explanation from one of the characters, but we are not certain whether this is his opinion or the truth. The book is more like a nightmare than a reasoned extrapolation. We see the consequences of a world without books, but we are not really offered a roadmap or even a theory explaining how this all came to pass.

Is the impact of the premise on an individual explored?

The book focuses on a fireman, named Montag, who has developed a secret -- and illegal -- interest in books. We certainly see how his comfortable life as an enforcer of the law devolves into being an outlaw.

Other characters are not shown especially deeply. We learn the most about Montag's wife, who leads a rather shallow life, primarily interacting with her full-room entertainment system and the "family" -- read virtual family -- she meets there. She and some others we encounter are intended to reveal the consequences of a life without literature.

Is the impact of the premise on society explored?

In Fahrenheit 451 we see a future society that is falling apart, but fails to recognize it. The absence of literature has led to an absence of questioning, an absence of wonder, and a general ignorance about how things work. It has also led to a kind of amorality combined with a latent depression within the populace.

How well written is the story?

Fahrenheit 451 is well-written. Unfortunately, I found it annoying in many ways.

I think my problem primarily stems from my desire to think of Bradbury's books as Science Fiction. I can be forgiven for this, since they are presented that way, just as he is talked about as a great Science Fiction writer. It would probably be wiser to think of him as a poet or essayist, who uses futuristic landscapes to make his points. Perhaps it is more Speculative Fiction than Science Fiction.

For example, he often shows very little concern for Science. Bradbury does not care to explain how a world like that in Fahrenheit 451 came into existence or even why the absence of literature affects people the way it does. It is that way because he tells us it is that way.

Fahrenheit 451 does something else that I associate with Bradbury, namely metaphorical writing that can be difficult to read and does not always enhance the story. It is not that the phrasing is too flowery -- though sometimes it is. The problem is that I cannot always follow his metaphors and therefore lose the thread of the story for a while. I think metaphors and similes may require special care in Science Fiction and Fantasy, where the reader is being asked to treat all manner of strange things as real and not merely descriptive.

Finally, in addition to being dreary, Fahrenheit 451 is surprisingly boring. This stems, in part, from far too much attention to the inner workings of Montag's mind rather than on events and dialog. He is possibly the least interesting character we encounter. He is driven by the story rather than the driver of the story. Other characters, his nemesis at the firehouse, his wife, the young girl he meets, and the professor are all far more interesting. This may stem from the fact that we know them through their deeds and their words rather than through their endless brooding.

Can I recommend the book?

Bradbury is an important figure in the history of Science Fiction. This was not my choice, but the decision of others made decades ago. If you are a student of Science Fiction, you should probably read one of his books. Fahrenheit 451 and Martian Chronicles are probably the best examples of his Science Fiction. If you are a student of Fantasy of all kinds, then you may find Bradbury, in general, and Fahrenheit 451, in particular, more to your liking.

If, however, you are just looking for a good read, this is not among my favorites. Indeed, I think the movie is better.

Tar Daddoo