Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451
Back whenever, Science Fiction was a genre I never thought about, convinced that such writers were (sorry, this is about my previous prejudices, and may not reflect reality about the genre, then or now AT ALL) geeky guys without social skills stuck in a 7 year old comic book fantasy of space-ships, ray-guns, stun-guns, giant robotic females with mammaries the size of whoopee cushions, who happened to be coloured green or red and had just dropped in from Venus or Mars.
It took me some time to realise that some writers whom I thought of as pretty thoughtful and thought provoking – H.G.Wells, George Orwell. (I liked their politics too) John Wyndham, even Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) were also writing in this genre. Science Fiction in the hands of these writers had far less to do with ray guns (or even Ray-Bans) and had everything to do with a device for looking at our society.
Then no less an admired writer (by me) than Doris Lessing began to write the stuff in the Canopus In Argos series, and moreover began banging the SF drum, saying that some of the most exciting writing was happening in the genre, as it was a perfect medium for Society to examine itself. Big ethical and philosophical ideas of now and the future could be teased out and examined, and moreover, of course, SF was a way of looking at what both a Utopia and a Dystopia might look like – or even whether Utopia itself was in fact really achievable, or just another Dystopia.
Added to my roster of other writers to admire (and I liked their politics!) were of course Lessing herself, Ursula K Le Guin and Sheri Tepper – not to mention Margaret Atwood and even Marge Piercy in Woman On The Edge Of Time. Suddenly it seemed as if there were a whole raft of feminist writers – fine writers, feminists, turning to this genre as a way of exploring gender politics, socialism – and I realised, hey, you know what, I LIKE SF!
Anyway, this preamble has brought me to re-reading some earlier SF classics, – most recently, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
Now Bradbury in this book may not be writing such well crafted complex characters as some of those writers I have mentioned, and the plot itself may even be a bit sparse or creaky, but my goodness, I am shocked and chilled and awed by how much of today’s culture he was predicting 60 years ago
Reality TV where we all become content not only to watch others living, rather than living ourselves, but, no doubt, the next step arriving very soon where our TV becomes interactive and we ourselves get inserted as bit players in the soaps we watch, or software that inserts our names into live TV, so that the TV talks directly to us, with announcers addressing us directly. Then we can live even less.
He seems to have mainlined into the fact that we have dumbed culture down, his description of the way people talk to each other so that actually they are not talking about anything at all seems unnervingly like the “and then he said, he was like, it was, you know, like, it was, yeah, no, know what I mean?” babble. You hear these conversations all around, more and more being said without any meaning:
People don’t talk about anything’…’They name a lot of cars or clothes or swimming pools and say how swell! But they all say the same things and nobody says anything different from anyone else
He predicts also the worst excesses of PC speak, and puts his finger neatly on the button of our expectation of happiness as a right, our inability to come to terms with the fact that pain and suffering are a real part of embodiment, of living in a world of matter. The best, the justest, the fairest society will not be able to end our personal suffering
Ask yourself, what do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these
I was shaking my head in amazement at the accurate identification of our can’t be still, can’t reflect society which settles for circuses (never mind the bread) and drinks, drugs, medicates, and buys its way out of having to acknowledge that pain is an unavoidable part of life itself – we will grow old (if we are that lucky); we will have to manage the loss, at some point, of those we love, and we too will die.
There is more – a society which cannot deal with complexity, with the fact there may not always be an obvious right and an obvious wrong, and this too, we cannot bear. One of the great challenges are situations where whatever action is taken, it will not be without some great cost, and yet we have to take some action, as the not taking an action is of course itself an act. Events in Syria are so much illustrative of this. I am minded of W.B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming:
The best lack all conviction, whilst the worst
Are full of Passionate intensity
How do we live having let go of the comfortable and childish security of a world which is black OR white, and let ourselves inhabit that more confusing challenging world filled with ever more subtle complexities of paradoxes, conflicts and oppositions coexisting together into and and, rather than either or?
If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.
And, seeing ahead to the vapid game show, where factual knowledge gives us the illusion we have intelligence and wisdom
Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so full of facts they feel stuffed, but absolutely brilliant with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving
He talks also about our inability to bear silence – everyone cushioned from the world by their own blare of noise wall to wall music piped into our heads, children plonked in front of the pabulum TV, learning early to be passive not interactive, – even the fashion for elective caesarians on non-medical grounds.
What makes this book so powerful still is the fact that so much of its dystopian vision is the way our lives actually are; not in fact so much ‘science fiction’ after all, rather a sociological analysis
We don’t need giant invaders from other galaxies with super powerful rare weapons to destroy us, and our world. We are ourselves those violent, aggressive, alien invaders