The Dystopia We Live in

Why you should read Fahrenheit 451

September 12, 2021

Within modern literature, one can make the argument that dystopian fiction is where you are most likely to find the most profound insight regarding the modern world while also being able to enjoy a good story. I'm not sure how well that claim would stand if we were to put the topic up for debate but we cannot deny that dystopian novels are both rightfully popular and insightful.

George Orwell's 1984 depicts a world where everyone lives under constant surveillance, fear is a main motivator as anyone could suddenly be found guilty of thought crime, and censorship thrives as the past is constantly being rewritten. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World shows us a world where everyone is genetically engineered to fit perfectly into a class system, where nobody can last long without taking drugs to cheer them up, and where children are encouraged to spend their free time having meaningless sex rather than doing something productive. Lois Lowry's The Giver takes place in a world void of color, individualism, and real families, where everyone's actions and responsibilities are planned from birth, a society where people are given an injection before they can leave their house each morning. And while its setting is rather unrealistic, Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series contains important warnings about rebellions and revolutionaries, and how when power shifts those who were formerly oppressed often prove themselves to be just as evil as the oppressors because they seek revenge rather than a fair society.

We see that just in these four examples there are several things worth reflecting on and remembering, and many people do people these days often use the term Orwellian to (often rightfully) compare things going on now to things that would have taken place in his book 1984, Brave New World is also constantly referenced. But there is another book that is already just as well known as these two classics but is not given the attention that it deserves, in fact I believe that Fahrenheit 451 should be given more attention than the works of Orwell and Huxley because, unlike their books, Fahrenheit 451 doesn't show a dystopia that society may fall into, instead it is a dystopia that we are already in. In the 1950s Ray Bradbury painted an almost perfect picture of what life 70 years later would be.

Now I'll be honest, if you had told me what I just said I probably wouldn't believe you, how could a book where firefighters go around setting books on fire rather than putting out fires be so representative of today's culture? When I was a sophomore in high school my class was assigned to read it and I didn't really get it back then and it didn't really inspire me. Looking back that probably had more to do with the fact that it was a book I was assigned to read rather than chose to read and, unlike most books these days, Fahrenheit 451 is a bit lacking in natural stopping points and it is best consumed within a couple days rather than the few weeks schools will drag it out through. After seeing the book pop up in various top ten lists for not only dystopian books but also science fiction books in general I decided that I needed to give it another try and after two short nights of reading I'm glad I did.

This is a book that knows where it is going and doesn't waste any time getting there, it is a book that shows rather than tells. For example we are introduced to the main character's wife when she is unconscious after attempting suicide by ingesting an entire bottle of sleeping pills, Montag (the main character) calls the equivalent of 911 to come and save her, then the men who come to revive her by hooking her up to a machine that replaces all of her blood with new blood aren't even doctors, they say that the procedure is so easy that no doctors are needed and that they get several of those calls a day. In the morning Ms. Montag wakes up not knowing why she was so tired and hungry, she doesn't acknowledge the fact that she downed an entire bottle of pills the night before and instead talks about what she plans on watching on TV that day all while expressing that she is perfectly happy. This short engaging scene shows us that this is a society filled with people who fill their lives with distractions so that they don't have to think about the fact that they are depressed, much like today's society.

There are of course many more scenes which seem as if they could have taken place with people from today. A conversation about the looks of two presidential candidates shows that this is a society where, much like many people today, people care more about the optics of a politician than they do their policies. A noisy train ride shows us that this is a world where people are constantly bombarded with content to consoom giving them no time to actually think deeply about anything, this is a concept that is all too familiar to most of us now. And a broadcast of an innocent man being arrested shows a media that is more interested in upholding a narrative than it is in sharing the truth, something that today's media can no longer believably deny.

Of course Bradbury didn't quite get everything right here, of course the technology is off but that is of course to be expected in a book written in the 50s, but the main thing that Bradbury got wrong was the alienation of people with liberal arts degrees. Fahrenheit 451 was written as a reaction to what came to be known as McCarthyism in American history, this was essentially a series of witch hunts carried out against Americans who were suspected of holding Communist views or being sympathetic to Communism and (as is even more true today) many of these people were liberal arts professors from various universities. These days which hunts have come back in style but now it is the liberal arts degree holding Communists who are carrying them out.

Although he wasn't completely wrong with that, the liberal arts people in Fahrenheit 451 differ from the ones we have today, Bradbury's praise went to those who still had respect for the Bible and for classic literature, things which are ignored by the liberal arts community of today. Today it is the meaningless modern art that is being praised while things resembling the classics, things that require talent and skill, are frowned upon. The works of children and machines are nearly indistinguishable from the works of a modern artist.

Really modern art is a great symbol for the future that Bradbury wrote of, it is empty and meaningless like the endless amounts of TV and radio content the people in Fahrenheit 451 consoom. This is a book where people refer to TV characters as their friends and family, but of course TV characters can't be your friend, they don't know you and they aren't even real. This past week millions of people have had an emotional reaction to a video of Steve from Blues Clues, a character who was in a kids show 20 years ago, giving them a motivational talk, this is something that would have felt entirely in place within the dystopian society Bradbury warned us about, the one we now live in.

But the most interesting thing about the society in Fahrenheit 451 is that it evolved into what it became naturally, there was no Big Brother imposing his rules onto people, there were no perfect babies born in test tubes, there was no catastrophe that fractured society as we know it, instead the change was gradual over a number of decades until the culture of the past bares no resemblance to the culture of the present. There is a whole monologue from this book which I'd love to include here but it would be too difficult to bring completely into context and you should really go out and read the book yourself to get the full experience, so instead I'll end by quoting these two paragraphs:

"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. Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally 'bright,' did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn't it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man's mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Me? I won't stomach them for a minute. And so when houses were finally fireproofed completely, all over the world (you were correct in your assumption the other night) there was no longer need of firemen for the old purposes. They were given the new job, as custodians of our peace of mind, the focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior; official censors, judges, and executors. …

"You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can't have our minorities upset and stirred. 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."

This is the dystopia that we live in, one void of creativity, one where no one is given time to think for themselves, one that only an outside observer can easily recognize as a dystopia.