My first homework assignment for my Readings in the Genre: Science Fiction Classics for my Master of Fine Arts degree from Seton Hill University in Greensburg Pennsylvania was Fahrenheit 451 (Science Fiction 165 pages) by Ray Bradbury.
Upon first glance, readers might not be entirely clear as to the classification of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. The novel appears to have no technology gone amiss, no aliens, no adventures in outer space, and yet, it’s considered one of the science fiction classics. One of the really good ways to understand the classification of Fahrenheit 451 can be found on page 163 of the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction: “The feature that unites every kind of sf is the construction – in some sense – of a world other than our own. This may be another planet (or even another universe); or it may be a ‘future world’ in which conditions have changed in some dramatic way. But whatever new conditions or circumstances apply – alien invasion, Martian colonies, a permanent cure for the ageing process – the writer has to signal the changes, and the reader has to be able to understand the significance of these signals” (Jones 163).
A shorter version of Fahrenheit 451 appeared in “Galaxy Science Fiction” under the title “the Fireman” in 1950. Thinking back on the world in 1950 and how Ray Bradbury and his contemporaries viewed the world and the directions technology might take has a variety of parallels with the modern world and modern society today. Early in the story, on page 18, the readers are introduced to some of the technology that is actually familiar to the world in which we live today, especially the “electronic bees” Mildred had plugged into both ears. The first dynamic headphones didn’t hit the market until the DT-48’s from Beyerdynamic, and smaller earbuds weren’t available on the market until the 1980s. This is one of the key factors of science fiction – the sense of wonder as described by Farah Mendlesohn in the “Introduction: Reading Science Fiction” chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. So even though small earbuds weren’t invented yet, Ray Bradbury had the idea in his head that maybe, someday, technology would move to a portable format for audio entertainment, and he was right! And then, on page 19 of Fahrenheit 451, Mildred is in the TV parlor, which is an entire parlor devoted to television screens. Since Montag is not exactly rich, he’s only been able to afford three screens for three walls so that Mildred can somehow participate in her show. She has boring scripts that she can read to the other characters on the screen, as she discusses on page 20. Modern technology has moved to being fully interactive to the level of video games being able to sense what actions a gamer is taking and for the video game to react accordingly. This is a further extension of the wall screen idea that Ray Bradbury is demonstrating in this story, which was published before televisions even progressed passed the black and white formatting for the mass market audiences. According to Nielsen.com, in 2009 there were 2.86 televisions per American household, which is more televisions per household than people. This is also in keeping with the implied statistics from Fahrenheit 451 because there were three screens in the television parlor of Montag’s house while there were only two people who lived there.
What’s really interesting is the idea that the people of the future had extensive use of technology and their lives were still lacking in basic happiness. On page 59 of Fahrenheit 451, Beatty is talking to Montag about the world in which they live: “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?” If anything, modern society has more technology and we are far more dependent upon that technology than even Ray Bradbury and the other science fiction authors of his time could ever imagine. We have computers the size of our hands and millions of computers run all of our day-to-day lives. We have planes that transport us to the other side of the planet within a single day and devices that give us full access to the combined knowledge of humanity. And yet, so many of the people in our world are struggling with disease, hunger, homelessness, depression, and poverty. We are, in many ways, living in part of the future that Ray Bradbury envisioned in Fahrenheit 451.
With all that said, and the connections between science fiction of the past and the present world in which we live, where does that mean science fiction is likely to head? What direction could science fiction travel in that hasn’t already been touched on by someone’s imagination? Stories abound in the modern world of space travel, aliens, robots, technology run amok, and humanity on the brink of extinction. If you speculate that the science fiction of the present can shape the face of the next fifty to one hundred years of human and technological evolution, what kind of changes could science fiction make for the benefit of all humanity? Perhaps science fiction should look towards solving global problems in small ways, or find ways to unite people with vastly different religious or cultural beliefs to encourage a world or society to live in peace. Perhaps science fiction has a responsibility to encourage people to become better stewards of the world in which they live, or to become inventors again of those things which we have only imagined or seen in movies. Perhaps an entire genre encouraging and providing information for people to learn how to communicate effectively with those they love in their lives, because for all the technology we have, we’re forgetting how to interact with other real people.
No matter what path science fiction takes, it will eventually turn from science fiction into science fact. The only responsible thing to do is to image a better world or universe and make the world better without having to wait for a war to destroy all the major cities and start all over again, like at the end of Fahrenheit 451.
Overall, I’m going to say that this book is a solid three on my rating scale. Once you get used to the flow and the style of the story, it reads very, very quickly. There’s a lot of really good correlations between the modern world in which we live and the future times envisioned and I think there’s a lot we can learn from this novel.
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Random House Publishing, 1996. Print.
Jones, Gwyneth. “The Icons of Science Fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 163-173. Print.
Mendlesohn, Farah. “Introduction: Reading Science Fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 1-12. Print.