A bona fide dystopian classic, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was published 63 years ago but remains worryingly relevant to this day. In a world where ignorance is aspirational, the role of the ‘fireman’ is to seek out and burn books – considered to be the source of unhappiness, they’ve long been banned and only a few remain, hidden away in attics and back rooms. When fireman Guy Montag starts to question the views and values of his world, he begins to see everything he knows in a different light – his neighbours and colleagues, his blissed-out wife, and even his job.
It’s a simple, elegant setup for the story – the man on the inside realises he’s conforming without questioning anything, and starts to push against the rules of his world. Bradbury builds a compelling backdrop for the story, filled with strange, beautifully drawn characters who push and pull Montag in different directions, from his young, fey neighbour Clarisse to the distant figure of his wife Mildred who’s more engaged with her TV shows than the world around her. For a book written 60+ years ago there’s a startling similarity to the world of today – we’re surely not far off having full-length TV walls like in Montag’s parlour, or interactive shows tailored to the person watching.
Bradbury’s writing is trippy and hypnotic, following Montag’s increasingly confused thought processes as he tries to understand what’s going on around him. It’s an intense read at times, compelling and hard to put down but sometimes draining as Montag debates history with his superior or rants and rages against his wife’s vapid friends. It’s only a short book, barely 200 pages, but in that space we see a vision of the future that’s fundamentally of its time – the shadow of the Cold War looms with the flights of warplanes overhead and the talk of drafts over the radio – but at its heart this is just as valid now. People hide away from what’s really going on, preferring to engage in increasingly violent or mind-numbing activities than really think or learn or understand anything. Sound familiar?
Make no mistake, this is a pretty bleak story, however there’s also a sense of hope in Montag’s arc. It’s somewhat ambiguous as to what actually sets Montag off on his path, whether it’s one or more of the events in the book or maybe even something that happened earlier in his life, but the point is that he makes a choice and follows through with it despite all the pressure against him. It’s the sort of book that rewards multiple readings to keep digging into it, and might not suit everyone as a result. Even just for the basic concepts however, it’s a deserved classic and still stands as one of the great dystopian novels.