The Failure of Fahrenheit 451

By Jeremy Smith

I.

In 1953, Ray Bradbury published a novel in which the burning of books presages the burning of the world.

In the half century since, Fahrenheit 451 has emerged as a staple of high school and college syllabi and continues to chart best-seller lists. Both Simon & Schuster and Del Rey are releasing fiftieth anniversary editions this year. This past summer it was the number one best-selling science fiction/fantasy paperback in Barnes & Noble stores. While it is most often used as a way of talking about media and censorship, Fahrenheit 451 also represents a literary mode that seeks to prevent a certain future by describing it. This mode is often -- but not always -- dystopian. It is distinguished most by a moralistic and apocalyptic state of mind.

Let's call it Cassandraism, after the daughter of Troy whose prophecies were not believed. Launched with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Cassandraism remains the most socially acceptable branch on the family tree of science fiction, embracing such respectably literary figures as Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Margaret Atwood, who with her 1986 novel The Handmaid's Tale became its foremost contemporary practitioner.

In Atwood's new novel Oryx and Crake, digital convergence and genetic engineering are combined and carried to their logical conclusion, a media-filtered apocalypse that the characters (and, one senses, the author) simultaneously yearn for and struggle against. Like the Bible's Book of Revelation, Oryx and Crake should be read not as a prediction of the future, but as a nightmare of the present. It stands in a tradition of novels like Brave New World or 1984 that are vaticinia ex eventu: history disguised as prophecy.

If the imaginative success of a Cassandraist novel as a warning must be measured in direct proportion to its empirical failure as a prediction, then at the beginning of the twenty-first century Fahrenheit 451 has devolved into a near-total fiasco. Today, no firemen roam the land literally burning books (at least not in this country, not yet) but they are merely a dramatization of Bradbury's true fears. "Almost everything in Fahrenheit 451 has come about, one way or another," says Bradbury in a 1998 interview with Wired magazine. "The influence of television, the rise of local TV news, the neglect of education. As a result, one area of our society is brainless."

II.

Brainless, or merely trapped in a dream from which we cannot wake?

On the first page of Fahrenheit 451 its protagonist Montag -- a fireman whose job it is to start fires -- is beside himself with bliss. "To see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed" leaves on Montag's face "the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame." Montag the censor is motivated not by ideology, but by the sheer orgiastic pleasure of burning.

As is usually the case in Cassandraist novels, which tend toward the allegorical and satirical, Fahrenheit 451 is about the consequences of giving the people what they want. There is no Big Brother in the world of Fahrenheit 451, no Stalin staring out in Manichean fury from ubiquitous posters and televisions that cannot be turned off. Evil is a technology, not a person, which is evil by virtue of its ability to give us -- some of us, anyway -- what we most desire. More than a technique or even a conspiracy, it is an accumulation of images that reflect our solipsistic fantasies back to us, an extension of our nervous systems into new environments that exclude both nature and society.

Bradbury, of course, wrote Fahrenheit 451 as the Cold War was freezing the world into two opposing camps. Only fifty percent of Americans owned a television, but the writing was on the wall: print culture had started its long, slow slide into movie options and miniseries. Just as Plato once denounced writing as inhuman in the Phaedrus and Hieronimo Squarciafico attacked "an abundance of books" in 1477, so for the writer Ray Bradbury the advent of broadcast media heralds the end of Western Civilization.

First came photography, says the malevolent, suicidal fire chief Beatty, in one of Fahrenheit 451's several interminable dialogues. Then "films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of pastepudding norm. . . . Speed up the film, Montag, quick. . . . Digest-digests, digest, digest, digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline!" Soon, everyone has a television. Writers voluntarily "lock up their typewriters" and "magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca." War becomes another organized sport "where someone else's husband dies."

"There you have it, Montag," finishes Beatty. "It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time." The firemen, observes one character, aren't even necessary -- they're just another spectacle, "a circus now and then at which buildings are set off and crowds gather for the pretty blaze."

Montag's wife Mildred is the exemplar of Beatty's idea of happiness. She subsists in an Elysian field of broadcast technology, surrounded by three walls of television while nagging Montag for a fourth. The walls -- from which constantly stream "music and pure cacophony" -- provide interactive programming that seems to be a combination of reality shows and soap operas. The 'families' on the walls talk directly to Mildred. "My family is people," she tells Montag. "They tell me things. I laugh, they laugh! And the colors!"

Montag secretly hoards that which he is paid to burn. After an old woman immolates herself on a pile of books during a firemen's raid, guilt and desire drive Montag to read pages that he does not understand. The codex becomes a fetish to him, an object of yearning and transformation, a gateway that destroys one world even as it creates the next. He wants books to do the work of fire.

He seeks the counsel of Faber, a former professor who still clings to a few outlawed books. Montag pleads with Faber to teach him to understand what he reads, but Faber turns him away. "It's not books you need," says Faber, in the novel's wisest and most self-aware moment. "It's some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the 'parlor families' today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all."

In Fahrenheit 451, Montag plots to overthrow the system, but Faber's advice is to await the four horsemen. "The whole culture's shot through," says Faber. "The skeleton needs melting and reshaping. . . . Patience, Montag. Let the war turn off the 'families'. . . . Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces."

In Fahrenheit 451's final pages, the flame comes full circle. Montag renounces his vocation as a fireman and escapes the city, but his desire to burn persists. In a final sequence that reads as the fulfillment of Montag's perverse fantasy, the world immolates itself in a nuclear war. In a mushroom cloud above the treetops, Montag envisions his wife's "wildly empty face" reflected in a hotel room mirror before the explosion carries that face away. For an instant the city stands "rebuilt and unrecognizable, taller than it had ever hoped or strived to be, taller than man had built it, erected at last in grouts of shattered concrete and sparkles of torn metal into a mural hung like a reversed avalanche, a million colors."

In the wake of the apocalypse, Montag joins a tribe of book-memorizing hobos and in the post-apocalyptic Eden dedicates himself to remembering the Books of Ecclesiastes and Revelation. It's a fitting choice: when John of Patmos composed Revelation, Caesar Nero reigned and threw Christians to the lions. Constantine's conversion under the cross of light was still centuries away. Viewed in this historical context John's revelation is not simply a nightmarish prediction, but also a fantasy of revenge against non-believers and deliverance from persecution.

"Our only hope is apocalypse," said the media critic and avowed conservative Catholic Marshall McLuhan near the end of his life, his fifteen minutes of fame over. "Apocalypse is not gloom. It's salvation." So at the end of Fahrenheit 451 the non-believers have been punished, but Montag and his brethren are saved. [1]

III.

On the fiftieth anniversary of Fahrenheit 451, we stand in the midst of another media transition, this time from broadcast to digital culture, at the edge of another political and economic precipice. In the day-after-tomorrow time of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, Jimmy and his best friend Crake live on a corporate compound dedicated to creating artificial animals -- such as the rakunk (rat + skunk) or the wolvog (wolf + dog) -- that echo the hallucinatory hybrids of the Book of Revelation ("And thus I saw horses in the vision . . . and the heads of the horses were as the heads of lions . . . their tails were like unto serpents").

Neglected by their scientist parents, the boys spend their free time playing electronic games with names like Extinctathon, which is sponsored by an entity called MaddAddam. "Adam named the living animals," says Extinctathon's introduction. "MaddAddam names the dead ones. Do you want to play?" When they aren't playing games, Jimmy and Crake surf the Net -- now the sole surviving medium, having swallowed all other media -- watching website shows like hedsoff.com (live executions in Asia), nitee-nite.com (assisted suicide), and HottTotts (child pornography), where they first encounter the anonymously Third World prostitute Oryx.

One night on At Home With Anna K ("a self-styled installation artist with big boobs who'd wired up her apartment so that every moment of her life was sent out live to millions of voyeurs"), Anna reads aloud from Macbeth as she sits on the toilet, pants around her ankles. Shakespeare, it seems, is no longer taught in the corporate high school that the boys attend. Jimmy is transfixed: "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,/To the last syllable of recorded time." Something seizes Jimmy when he hears these lines, but he is not able to hold the feeling. Like Montag, he's never been taught to understand what he reads, but unlike Montag, Jimmy has no Faber to run to.

Instead he has only Crake. As the boys grow into what passes for adulthood, Crake emerges as a genius in genetics and is given the best his nightmare 21st century has to offer. Jimmy, an incipient writer, attends an arts college -- impoverished like all the rest of the arts colleges -- but afterward becomes an advertising hack. In quiet moments he recites to himself litanies of words that his culture's forgotten -- "Purblind. Quarto. Frass." -- while at work making up new ones -- "tensicity, fibracionous, pheromonimal" -- that his bosses either don't catch or like "because they sounded scientific and had a convincing effect."

Throughout the novel Atwood deliberately mutilates words or combines them in grotesquely commercial ways, symptoms of a deeper disease, a metaphor for the cutting and pasting of genetic material. Books are not literally burned in Oryx and Crake (as they are not in our present day) but digital convergence produces all the same effects described in Fahrenheit 451.

Images might, as Faber points out to Montag, do the work of wondering and remembering, but their flicker is too rapid to hold anything for more than a moment. The conversion of the word into the digitized image disarms Atwood's characters in the face of technological change, rendering them unable to construct ethical or imaginative systems that might help them to survive the contradictions created by genetic engineering. Because they cannot remember, the future does not exist for Jimmy and Crake: vaticinia ex eventu. As in Fahrenheit 451, this is the road to apocalypse.

Years pass. Crake becomes the architect of a line of designer humanoids, recruiting Jimmy to run their ad campaign. The "floor models" Crake shows Jimmy are physically beautiful beings purged of "the features responsible for the world's current illnesses." The 'Crakers' eat grass, berries, and their own excrement, and contain natural defenses -- such as predator-repelling piss and a self-healing purr -- that make them "perfectly adjusted to their habitat, so they would never have to create houses or tools or weapons, or for that matter, clothing." Animals with consciousness but not culture (shades of The Island of Dr. Moreau), they live in a crèche which is an Edenic utopia. They are taught to survive by Oryx, the child prostitute from HottTotts whom Crake has sifted the world to find. To the boys, Oryx represents a purity that is outside of culture, a bridge to life outside the corporate compounds where they grew up.

IV.

It's a bridge that Crake burns at the story's climax, although the flames are considerably cooler than those of Fahrenheit 451. Oryx and Crake is a curiously anemic book, savage without being passionate. Atwood filters the rage at the heart of the story through prose as cold as the ones and zeroes that mediate Jimmy's 21st century. When the apocalypse arrives, Jimmy watches it unfold on the Net, immunized and hidden with the children of Crake: "The whole thing seemed like a movie. . . . The worst of it was that those people out there -- the fear, the suffering, the wholesale death -- did not really touch him." In the aftermath, Jimmy leads the Crakers out of the compound and into a world that Crake has cleansed for them. In one of Atwood's slyest jokes (and there are many in Oryx and Crake), Jimmy finds the new landscape peppered with glow-in-the-dark bunnies -- the actual result, achieved in the year 2000 under the direction of "transgenic" artist Eduardo Kac, of splicing rabbit and jellyfish DNA. As at the end of Fahrenheit 451, the protagonist becomes one with a landscape transfigured by violence. History begins again, disguised as prophecy.

Crake's motivation is a hatred of the world as it is, combined with a drive to perfect it. Behind the veil of all literary apocalypses, lies the rage of an idealist and impatience with the incremental process of social change. The difference between Atwood and Bradbury (as well as John of Patmos) is that Atwood is conscious of this dynamic and uses Oryx and Crake to comment upon it. Her pallid book is not itself wish fulfillment -- as is the incandescently-written Fahrenheit 451 -- but rather the portrait of a wish fulfilled, with all its dreadful consequences.

There is no room in Atwood's imagination for a God who on some Day of Judgment will punish the wicked and reward the good. Her apocalypse does not save anyone. Instead of God there is only Crake, the mad scientist, a pathetic, immature figure but also one of immense honesty, will, and intelligence. "Had he been a lunatic," Jimmy asks himself, "or an intellectually honourable man who'd thought things through to their logical conclusion?"

The truth for Atwood, I suspect, is that there is little difference. Frankenstein's monster -- his highest achievement and therefore the embodiment of his arrogance -- destroys everything that is beautiful in the life of the good, doomed doctor, who wants only to bring light to the world. There is a very fine line between the best and the worst. While Fahrenheit 451 retreats from it, Oryx and Crake tries to teach us to walk that ambiguous line. Whether Oryx and Crake will succeed -- as Fahrenheit 451 has failed -- in preventing the future it describes is now entirely up to its audience.

 

Copyright © 2003 Jeremy Smith

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Jeremy Smith is Director of Financial Services at the Independent Press Association. He'd like to thank the Mesa Writers Refuge, at which this essay was conceived and parts of it written.

Notes:

1. Like most people, I first read Fahrenheit 451 in high school. I saw Francois Truffaut's 1966 film version almost ten years later. On re-reading the novel for this essay, I was shocked to discover that my memory of the film's plot had almost entirely eclipsed the plot of the novel. I had completely forgotten, for example, about the apocalypse that ends the book but not the film. Thus does the image, somewhat depressingly, conquer the word. Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 is also interesting for the way it problematizes Bradbury's conclusion. The final image of the film -- of exiles pacing in circles through the snow, mumbling the lines of the books they have become -- is chilling and profoundly ambiguous.