Monday, June 18, 2018

Fahrenheit 451

     I noticed Fahrenheit 451 had been made into a tv movie and, as I was cruising by, I watched it for a few minutes. The story did not resemble the book but it had been a long time since I have read it so it was time to take it off the shelf. A nuclear war breaks out at the end of the novel which fits in well with my recent apocalyptic theme. 
     Considering how crazy politics and the discussion have gotten lately, I am amazed to see that Ray Bradbury spotted this trend back in the early 1950's as he has Beatty tell the disillusioned fireman Montag,

     "Now let's take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don't step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that!

     Indeed. I think we are getting to the book burning stage. The younger generation is very comfortable with censorship.

     Having reread the book now. I can see that the HBO movie re-interprets the story in a very politically correct way. I will not compare the two since I did not watch the entire movie but there is an orthodoxy and it appears to be crime these days to disagree with all or part of the political narrative. A book on censorship was censored. 

     Somebody once suggested to me that Huxley's A Brave New World is the logical future of the society in the novel if that society was not obliterated by nuclear war.

The story opened with the glory and beauty of a large fire consuming a house and the books inside. Guy Montag was a happy fireman, or at least he thought he was happy until he met a teenage girl on his walk home from work and she made him realize that there is something missing in his life: human connection. He arrives home from his conversation with the teenaged sprite and finds his wife has committed suicide. After calling the emergency number, a non-medical crew shows up with a gadget that sucks the prescription pills out of suicides like Mildred since there are so many now. While the crew is working on Mildred, Montag could hear Clarisse and her family warmly talking on their porch and laughing. The emptiness of his life hits him even harder. 
     In the morning, Mildred wakes up and carries on as if nothing has happened. Most houses are equipped with large tv screens that take up the entire wall. There are no movies or dramas on those screens, just live action that seems to be quite a bit like reality tv. Viewers get to vote on things and can interact with characters on the screen. Mildred won the chance to speak a line on one of those programs by sending in boxtops. Except that the screens are so very large, one could be talking about social media, video games and the whole internet. 
     Montag returns to work but he is no longer the same man. The Hound, a cruel parody of the Dalmatian that fire halls used to keep as a mascot, 'senses' the change in him and begins to threaten him. Radio and television news occasionally break in with some statement about a looming war. For the next seven days, Clarisse would walk to the subway or to home with him, chattering away and then she was gone. 
     While Montage is processing the changes in himself, the firemen are sent to the house of  an old woman with a library full of books. Rather than run, she quotes Hugh Latimer, a Protestant martyr, executed in the time of Mary I. Latimer was an Oxford don who was executed for translating the Bible into English so that anyone could read it. The quote  recited by the old woman tells Latimer's co-conspirator to be of courage, that they would, with this burning (execution for heresy), light a candle that he hoped would never be put out. That candle would be knowledge. The statement is full of irony that the old lady's house and books and their knowledge are about to be extinguished by fire. Rather than go to the insane asylum, the old lady lights a match and sets herself on fire. With Montag's already fragile mental state, he is horror-struck and goes home and weeps. But he stole a book from the house and subsequent events show he has stolen books before. 
      The station captain came to visit Montag and talk to him about books and how the burning got started. It really was not necessary to burn the books, ordinary people, we, by complaining about being offended got rid of them ourselves. Considering the 'safe spaces', protests against professors who challenge the current narrative, politicians who deny scientific consensus on the basis of their feelings, one can hear Beatty say to Montag,  "the word intellectual became the dirty word it deserved to be".( A few months back there was a kerfuffle between Margaret Atwood and some Me Too activists. Atwood was pleading for due process and the rule of law while the activists accused her of being unorthodox. )
     Montag finds out that Clarisse was killed by a 'hit and run' and his rejection of social norms is cemented. He remembered an English professor he met once and goes to the man's house looking for help in exploring his new knowledge and processing it. Beatty has given him a deadline to get rid of the books. After the deadline passes and Montag screams in rage at his wife and her friends, he becomes a fugitive from the law. His house is burned, he burns Beatty and the Hound is set to track him down and kill him. He eludes capture but, because the hunt is broadcast live and the government must be seen as capable, the Hound is sent to kill a poor random man who is out taking a walk. 
      Montag escapes from the city and follows the railroad tracks to a transient community that tries to keep the books alive by memorizing their contents. While he is talking to those men, a nuclear strike hits the city and the decision is made to return to the city to help the survivors. 
      So how well did Bradbury foretell the future? Well, we are not burning books yet although some have been banned and offended minorities threaten Shakespeare and Mark Twain from time to time. Contests, diversions, people addicted to technology, a mental ill health epidemic are here now.  Bread and circuses to distract the mob from the war that is a constant backdrop. There are very few, if any years, where there has not been some war or other since 1900. As the bombers fly over Montag's house, he states there have been two atomic wars since 1990.  That has not happened but as more countries join the nuclear club, it is but a matter of time. 
      Montag also comments that they are so rich in the U.S. and the rest of the world is so poor and that may be why the world hates them. Partly true and good of him to admit not everyone loves 'America" the country. I have met many wonderful Americans but I would also say the American government's interference in the internal politics of so many sovereign nations is a bigger part of why they are hated.
         -Presidents are elected for their presence on tv, that has happened. Looks are not so important in U.S. politics but has played a part in Canadian elections, i.e. Robert Stanfield vs. Trudeau the elder. 
      - parents don't parent anymore, just shove their kids in front of a screen and leave them.
     -Bradbury did not foresee the growing income inequality. none of the science fiction writers did. Most imagined shorter work days with guaranteed income not longer days and insecure work or outsourcing. Not being greedy themselves, they underestimate the greed of others. 
    - the war began and ended in an instant. Thanks to intercontinental ballistic missiles, it is no longer necessary for jets to zoom overhead and drop the bombs. However, we will have the godawfulness of the warning to take cover while they are on their way. Once it turns nuclear, it would not last long. I do not think there would have been a third nuclear war like in the novel. 
     - the description of the blast is not realistic. There would be a light but those looking at it would likely be blinded. The city would be vaporized not lifted up in the air to crash back down. There would be a wind, a shock wave, knocking trees, buildings, men down, but it would come with heat and no one would want to walk back to the city to help survivors as there is not likely to be any and the radiation would kill the helpers. Montag and the other survivors are close enough to the city to be burned in the ensuing fires. 
     -The survivors would not need these men and their books. There will be famine and there will be disease, homelessness, cold and other manner of suffering. Novels will be of no use in such a world for a long time after. 
      -the reason for the war is never given. The public is kept in the dark as to what the government is doing, who they are at war with and why.   We are not so blind yet, but we could be. 
     -Bradbury does not try hard to imagine what life would be like after a nuclear war, the apocalypse is really the catastrophic event that it would take to change the current course of humanity. 

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