Neither Science nor Fiction
"With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word `intellectual', of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar."
-Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
It is amazing how much of Ray Bradbury's science fiction epic Fahrenheit 451 has come true. One wonders what connection he had with the occult (other than script writing “The Twilight Zone”) for him to foresee the future in such a detailed manner. For people who have not read the novel let me briefly summarize his 1951 masterpiece.
It is set in the distant future where Guy Montag is a fireman, he lives in a time when firemen do not put out fires but start them instead. Their job is to burn books, because in the future reading and owning books is illegal. The rationale behind banning books is twofold. Firstly there is a general lack of interest in reading books and secondly opinion books contain problems and conflicting theories. They cause people to be anxious, sad, or angry; they are disruptive to society and full of nonsense. That is what the government wants to prevent, because those feelings could cause instability. Montag comes home to wife who watches three wall-sized TVs at once and stays up all night listening to the radio with an ear piece. Her life is described as meaningless and empty, and she eventually tries to commit suicide. The story picks up when Montag meets a young 17-year-old girl named Clarisse and she opens up his world by asking questions of happiness and why things are the way that they are. She unlike most of the people of the time pays attention to nature and is the only free-thinking character in the novel.
Her death is the catalyst that Montag needs to wake up; when a woman chooses to be burnt with her books he decides to steal one to see what was so great about books that people would give their lives for. He is soon questioned by his boss as to why he stole the book and is given 24 hours to read it and burn it, proving how worthless it is. He then contacts an English professor he had met earlier as to what to do, they devise a plan to start reprinting books firstly for the general benefit of the people and secondly to plant those in Firemen's homes in an attempt to bring the profession into disrepute. Montag then burns his boss in a fit of anger just as he was about to be arrested and then flees the city. Outside the city he meets a group of tramps who have learned books by heart and wish to spread the word. The city he fled from is bombed and they return with the knowledge of the books to rebuild the city.
So much of the story mirrors modern life that it is unbelievable. The fact that books are illegal in the future because they have conflicting views could clearly be related to modern day censorship. The fact that both in the book and in real life that the government has a major role to pay is quite uncanny. Here in Bangladesh we live under the threat of the government jailing people for the opinions they raise and the articles they publish in newspapers. There is talk of an open press, yet the one that disagrees with the government is publicly lambasted, quite like the conflicting views of the books of the future. These days reading has become a rarity; it has led to a generation that grew up with the television. This is the reality of Bradbury's book, where books are also banned because no one reads them. The last fifty years have been characterised by the television that we watch rather than the books we have read. Reading is a hobby of the past. The world is too fast paced and information-orientated for literature to have real meaning. The intellectuals have not only passed away in body, but the books that their souls live on in are now relics of a bygone era.
Other aspects of the book seem to describe modern life to the letter, entertainment such as television and radio, fast cars, loud music, and advertisements create a lifestyle with too much stimulation in which no one has the time to concentrate. It is amazing how similar society in his book is to the society of today. This is the era of rampant consumer spending coupled by disgruntled youth. We are all seemingly bombarded by television and the internet, so much so that we now live by them, or die without them. The modern man is in search of stimulation and will go through anything for it, he is best represented by Montag's wife. All she did was watch TV and listen to the radio all night; she seemingly had everything yet still attempted suicide. Thus proving that even materialism had its limits, a lesson we can all learn from. The youth of the future drive fast cars and listen to loud music, and at amusement parks there are games where one just goes and breaks things.
Just like in the book Clarisse represents what we would like to achieve, she represents the will of what we would like to be. While most of us are satisfied with our material wealth and lifestyles modelled on pleasure, Clarisse is the last person to question it all. She is the social consciousness that we all eventually wake up to, one wonders if it will be too late. Will the city have been bombed by then?
One wonders when we will have that moment of self-immolation, will we burn ourselves, like the woman who died for her books? Until we do, life will go on, and every successive generation will grow intellectually weaker. There will come a point where we sit in front of wall, sized TVs all day, drive fast cars, listen to loud music and break things. With the way things are going, we will live the ultimate absurdist life without meaning. Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which books burn, and the mind numbs.
(R) thedailystar.net 2006