Artizan Street Library Reading Group met to discuss Ray Bradbury’s science fiction classic  Fahrenheit 451

RayOur chosen item on this occasion was Ray Bradbury’s classic 1953 science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451, his dystopian account of an America in which literature is banned and firemen have the role of burning any found. Written when Bradbury was in his 20s, first as a short story for Galaxy Magazine and reprinted in the first edition of Playboy, it was finally expanded and published as a novel.

The story is of a fireman who finds himself at odds with oppressive social norms and illegally hoards books until he is discovered, kills his discoverer and flees to join a group of non-conformists of whom each has memorised part or the whole of a banned book. The story includes a hideous metallic robot dog (The Hound) with a hypodermic proboscis.

Everyone had liked it. And wasn’t it full of American cold war anxieties? Set at a date which allows for two nuclear wars to have been fought since 1960, it ends with the bombing of the hero’s city. Mass entertainment and drugs sedate the population when they are not driving lethally high-speed cars or shooting each other for fun.

For Malcolm there were two factors which really made the book stand out – first Bradbury was, by his own account, largely untutored. He doesn’t do much analysis or critique, he just lets the fears of urban dysfunction spread over the page unfiltered. Second, far from identifying America’s cold war enemies as analogous to the dystopia he describes, it turns out that he has in mind home-spun ideologues like Senator McCarthy of the House Un-American Activities Committee, something he has made clear in interviews and forewords to the book. So. Left-wing? Not so sure, according to Rory, Sara and Tim. Maybe in the confused terms of USA politics of the time.

What Tim had liked was the sense of angst in the story. He remembered the Cuban missile crisis in his childhood. Even youngsters like Jenny and Rory, as they averred, had experienced that sort of thing during the 1970s – and the 1980s. The chord struck was epochal.

And then you had, courtesy of all that 1950s mass neurosis, the most amazing prescience, or lack of it. Malcolm had made a list: elongated advertising bill-boards for super-fast car travel (never happened because the USA put in place low speed limits, relying on their gun laws for population control); palm-print access to homes (well, we have got finger-print access to computers, so it’s in the offing); wifi mobile earphones (spot on!); automatic toasted bread handlers (no, but that’s too weird anyway); wall-to-wall social network TV (not domestic yet, but the social network is); ATMs! (wow). Maybe where he falls down worst is the idea of a booming guild of asbestos weavers (making houses flameproof). And, of course, his atom bomb conflict seems to have no concomitant radiation issue.

A period piece. Take his epiphanic account of the hero’s encounter with the content of the books he is meant to destroy: ‘… a man was behind each one of the books. A man had to think them up. A man had to take a long time to put them down on paper.’ No PC gender equality there, is there?

Wasn’t there also, in the line of prescience, something to be said for library closures as a parallel for book-burning? Sara wanted to know. There appeared not to be a Tory voter among us. Yes, there was.

Characters. Bradbury did them, but in his own style. Rory thought them stereotypical. The hero, Montag, is full-on, flawed, made absolutely in control of his fateful drama. There’s a minor character, Clarisse, who is the catalyst for Montag’s aberrance, made perfectly natural and killed off early in the narrative for hoarding books. The others are odder. There’s his superior and nemesis, Beatty; his co-conspirator, Faber; his rescuer, Granger. Each is given a lengthy exposition of Weltanschauung. Beatty’s is the most central to the conceit of the story. He explains the history of the fireman’s role – homes became fire-proof, thanks to asbestos, so the job had to change. Brilliant, to Malcolm’s mind. Wasn’t that just what you get from the history of drug laws nowadays? Have a look at David Nutt’s (ex UK Drugs Tsar, sacked for advocating legalisation) article explaining the origin of USA anti-drug laws ( the end of 1920s alcohol prohibition left an army of police without a job, so they were diverted to ‘other substances’. These characters aren’t built at all, but mouthpieces for Bradbury’s conflict of ideas. Interestingly, Faber, a retired teacher, abetting Montag, trivialises books – ‘It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that were once in books.’

There was a film of the book, directed by French auteur François Truffaut, starring Oskar Werner and… Julie Christie! The film omits the ambient nuclear war and robot dog. What’s more, it omits the killing off of the Clarisse character (Mlle Christie, bien sûr ). In the film, the hero is reunited with her among the memorising literary types who have fled to safety. Malcolm’s theory was that, if you have Julie Christie in a film, you absolutely do not kill her off before the end!

Next time we have Amitar Ghosh’s Sea of poppies, his historical adventure set against the Opium Wars. We meet Monday 25 January at Artizan Street Library.

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