THE PHYSICS AND SOCIAL CONSCIENCE OF SCIENCE FICTION cont.
Fahrenheit 451: Ray Bradbury
451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which books burn. This is the physics of heat and entropy. And this is a tale of censorship and defiance. “The system was simple”, Bradbury begins his story. “Books were for burning along with the houses in which they were hidden.”
Burning books is the central premise upon which the story unfolds. Guy Montag is a firefighter. However, in this day and age, firefighting has taken on a whole different meaning. Guy is charged with the socio-political responsibility of burning books wherever they may be found. There are still all the lights and sirens that we associate with being a firefighter — they even have a pole to slide down on — but now, when the fire engine pulls up outside your door, it is met with trepidation not relief. Whereas water used to be the fluid of salvation, kerosene has become the liquid of suppression. Guy goes about his duties with the typical verve that a firefighter must have and he never thinks twice about lighting a match to save people from themselves. That is, until a new neighbor moves in next door to him.
“Have you ever read any of the books that you burn?” The neighbor asks him. “Of course not,” he returns. “Books are illegal.” But such begins a change in the man. One that causes him to question what he is doing. It infuriates his boss and worries his wife who persists that he watch “the people in the wall” referring to huge television screens placed into the wall. Of course, the shows on television are antiseptic and shallow. They are meant to be, because keeping the flock ignorant means that you can control their minds and behavior. It is quite Orwellian.
Media consumption is an underlying theme and it smacks of the silly mindlessness of so many TV programs today. What better way to control information than by not allowing it to disseminate freely. Instead, give the people what they want, harmless, shallow mindlessness. Part of what makes this story seem real is that Bradbury has connected his story with our current media trends.
Nothing is ever mentioned about the totalitarian government that has decreed these laws about books. It is simply “understood”. This is because Bradbury doesn’t want his characters striking back at the Regime politically. He wants them making self discovery choices that transcend the socio-political turmoil that this society reflects. Choices that cause Guy Montag to find a secret society of people who choose a book and then memorize it, taking on the name of the title as their own to preserve the book from the fiery Gates of Hell.
This is the way you fight the Unseen Monster, with defiance. The Regime IS the true “monster from the Id” in Bradbury’s book. And like the creature in Forbidden Planet, it is illusory and unnatural. It can be defeated, but not in any conventional way. Both situations in these books are confrontational. They must supply a moral paradigm. And they became that way because of the misuse of science.