Although not my number one all-time favorite book, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is among the top ten. This dystopian novel presents a future American society where books are outlawed and "firemen" burn any that are found. Published in 1953, Bradbury describes a world that had traded the written word for the instant gratification of technology and mass media. Every time that I read Fahrenheit 451, I am amazed at how familiar the world that Bradbury wrote of seems to be. Did he predict the future?
Let me start by talking about the book itself. The book is broken up into three parts: "The Hearth and the Salamander", "The Sieve and the Sand", and "Burning Bright". It takes place in an unspecified city at an unspecified time in the future, and tells the story Guy Montag, a "fireman" who burns the possessions of those who read outlawed books. He meets his new neighbor, a teenage girl named Clarisse, whose free-thinking ideas cause him to challenge his life and his own perceived happiness. This challenge begins to extend into his married life as he realizes how little he knows his wife Mildred, and how little they have in common. Montag, who has been stealing books and hiding them in his house, begins to read the texts, desperate to find some meaning in the books. Over the course of Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury weaves a tale of awakening as Montag goes from being an obedient "fireman" to a fugitive on the run, hunted by his own ex-coworkers.
Here is a bit of historic context for you. The book was written during the McCarthy era of the Cold War. The American public's fear of atomic war and communist influence was at an all-time high. This was a time when the government was investigating American citizens suspected of having communist ties and dissenting views. It was also a time of transition from the "Golden Age of Radio" to the "Golden Age Television", which Bradbury saw as a threat to reading books.
What has always fascinated me about Fahrenheit 451 was the imagery that Bradbury created, and how closely some of that imagery resembles our world today. Some of his ideas, as well as some of the technology he describes, seem so prolific that it is difficult to remember that this book was written over 60 years ago. Allow me to give you a few examples.
Let me start with the "parlor walls". One of Mildred's favorite past times is to watch the "parlor walls", large screens lining the walls of the living room. These screens project continuous programming 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Among the scripted programming shown, there is also live news programming, which often includes "as it happens" coverage. With television in its infancy at the time, one can see how Bradbury could imagine that it would grow and expand in the future, but for him to envision a day when televisions were thin enough to hang from the walls is uncanny. There is a moment in the book when Montag watches on television as a fugitive is hunted down in real time, with news helicopters hovering over the scene relaying the images for broadcast. In the 1950s, that was a feat that was nearly impossible. But in this day and age, how many live police chases have you seen on television?
As Montag realizes that he doesn't understand what he is reading, he turns to an old English professor he once met named Faber. The professor reluctantly agrees to help Montag, and provides him with a small ear piece with which Faber can speak to Montag without wires. It sounds like a simple enough gadget, but remember at the time that the book was written, wireless technology was in its infancy, requiring large broadcasting units to work. As it is described, it is something small, and difficult to detect when worn in the ear. Sounds eerily like a Bluetooth hands-free device to me. Add to that the "Seashell ear-thimbles" mentioned in the book, and you have iPod earbuds.
One tool used by the "firemen" is a mechanical hound. This horrifying device can hunt and stalk fugitives, killing them without the need for human intervention. Although we have not quite reached this point yet, this concept sounds a lot like the drones that have become so strategic in the military.
Of more interest than just the technology Bradbury predicted, is the overarching themes included in Fahrenheit 451. He describes a society where the government uses mass media to influence society, and a constant desire for a simplistic, positive image leads to books being suppressed. In a conversation that Montag has with his boss, Captain Beatty explains that over the course of decades, people embraced new media, sports, and a quickening pace of life. Books were eventually abridged and degraded to accommodate mankind's shortened attention span. Minority groups protested controversial material that they deemed offensive, and in the end the government used this as an opportunity to ban books altogether in the name of public happiness.
Although we have not reached the point of government-induced censorship, these themes do have a ring to them. The attention span of Americans has shortened, and technologies such as Twitter, Facebook, and the Internet in general, were all designed to allow for quicker consumption of information while on the go. We've become a society that finds 140 characters to be more than enough to communicate our ideas, thoughts and feelings. Even the definition of the word "friend" is being redefined by our faceless relationships on social media. And how many books have been removed from school library shelves because a minority group declared it offensive. We live in a world of political correctness where every word one speaks is weighed to determine if it may be offensive.
Ironically, throughout its history, Fahrenheit 451 has itself been the victim of censorship. There have been several incidents of banning, censoring, and redacting by schools and teachers who seemed unaware or, at least, indifferent to the inherent irony.
So, back to my original question. Did Ray Bradbury predict the future? I'd say no, but he certainly came close. He had the foresight to see the trends of his time, and envision one of many paths that mankind could take. In an interview entitled Conversations with Ray Bradbury, the author described himself in this way: "I am a preventor of futures, not a predictor of them. I wrote Fahrenheit 451 to prevent book-burnings, not to induce that future into happening, or even to say that it was inevitable." If you have never read Fahrenheit 451, I implore you to take the time to indulge in this classic piece of literature. It will be well worth the time.