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Fabulous & Frightful Fahrenheit 451

The greatest fiction isn't; rather, it shows humans as they are, not where they will be. Because people never change. Times change, contexts change, but humans? Never. Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) understood this, and in Fahrenheit 451 (1953) he really got us right. Except the constant smoking. But we can play that off as stylistic, not anachronistic.

I've read Fahrenheit 451 more than once, but not this decade. On picking it up again, I suspected the story to feel more out of date. I was surprised, and saddened, that I found it more relevant than ever.

What Bradbury understood about people is that we always (always) plod inexorably toward comfort, what I frequently call the path of least resistance. I see around (and within) me at all times a great desire to unsee, to not be bothered, to put off responsibility until we have the resources, the emotional wherewithal to address everyday injustice and horror. Sadly, that day never comes. Worse still, I don't think we will ever get around to it without losing what makes us human.

We see it today more than ever in the hordes of desperate, right-wing, freedom-loving nutjobs stumbling toward one another into Pestilence's fevered embrace. They want their carefree lives back, and their sports, haunts and shows. They want to run through the streets to waylay and emotionally drain others like they used to: the familiar more important than the health and lives of others (because nothing is real until it happens to them). The nutjobs do this gladly, so long as they're comfortable and happy. The way it was is the way it'll always be, right?

That is what Fahrenheit 451 is about.

I know our present (COVID-19 pandemic of 2020) situation can be more complicated than that, but I'm not talking about the working slaves propping up our societies: those who defy quarantine to pay rent, utilities and keep food in their fridges. Who can afford altruism when there are bills to pay and no social net to catch them? Sadly, these so-called heroes are paying the, in some cases ultimate, price so the wealthy and ignorant might live free.

Sure, Bradbury's prose is so purple it's sanguine, bleeding sangria-toned poetry so thick you'll need to look at sentences twice to read through the colour. It's Bradbury's weakness: being overly poetic and metaphorically masturbatory, but some people like that sort of thing, and it is a small price to pay for good, true fiction.

The truth I'm talking about isn't Bradbury's prediction of ATMs, wireless earbuds, society's increasing reliance on media with commensurate social detachment, alienation and reliance on stabilizing medication, nor their lack of discourse stifled by fearful over-sensitivity--Bradbury wrote our future right back in good 'ol 1953--rather, it's how he imagined people would behave in that context. Ray Bradbury speculated with impressive clarity, imagined where technology might take us and applied the same old human frailty, those reliably unreliable humans, to that future state. It's a particularly nihilistic view of the future, but one true to history and, apparently, our present (well, parts of it, anyway).

It makes the misanthrope in me smile and the optimist weep.

You should give it a read.

"But you can't make people listen. They have to come 'round in their own time, wondering what happened and why the world blew up under them. It can't last."

- Granger, Fahrenheit 451


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