Friday, September 4, 2009

1954 Retro Hugo – FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury

The third and final retro winner (so far) is Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Hugo skipped 1954 after its first award in ’53, but came back to fill in the gap in 2004. This is also another book that I read over a decade ago.

This is the classic anti-censorship book, and the first real example on this list of the impact science fiction can have on society. So, it’s a bit unfortunate that I have some problems with this classic piece of American literature.

My main problem is that it’s not nearly so much about censorship as it is a polemic against mass culture. Farhenheit 451 is, of course, the temperature at which books burn. There are mass book burnings represented and condemned here. But, really, the main issue is not a repressive government or overly-constrictive social mores; the main issue is that everyone watches too much television and relies too much on appliances (and pharmaceuticals) to get them through their boring days. It's important to remember that the novel was written as a new consumer culture was emerging - the same culture that led to the kitchen and tv-centric view of the '50s that most of us still have. In Bradbury's view, a byproduct of this new consumer culture was a dangerous anti-intellectualism. The narrator’s wife especially (a soap opera-addicted housewife) seems like a judgmental and simplistic caricature.

I hate anti-intellectual trends in America society as much as the next academic, but I’m also fond of the old boob tube, and I find the whole "idiot box" viewpoint presented here to be a bit reductive and premature. There was a real debate in the ‘50s about the value of mass culture and a strengthening of the separation between high culture (classical music, literary fiction, some films) and low culture (popular music, genre fiction, television, most other films), with a few items caught in between (where does Jackson Pollock fit? Andy Warhol? Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea is a bit too maudlin and sentimental to be serious literature, right?). I personally think that a lot of cultural critics were a bit too black-and-white with this divide, and there’s obviously an elitist tinge to this whole idea. I think it undermines Bradbury’s message that he ends up echoing much of this elitist argument. The basic message isn’t just “stop censorship!” It’s really “stop censorship of books by smashing all televisions,” which really verges on hypocrisy as far as I’m concerned.

Sure, you can still find people who rail against television as the root of all evil (though not as much), and yes, too much television probably does not make for a healthy, well-informed society. But, I think it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination (especially with hindsight) to see that tv has potential to be more than just an “idiot box.” Bradbury couldn’t see that television might educate and inform, deliver news to a broader population, create art, etc. It’s always disheartening to see this kind of failure of imagination in a writer of speculative fiction.

By the way, I think two other books nominated for the ’54 retro-Hugo are worth a mention. Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel is a futuristic mystery teaming a robo-phobic cop with a robot detective. It’s my favorite Asimov book and a somewhat underrated science fiction classic. In Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End demonic-looking aliens visit the earth in preparation for the evolution of humanity into higher beings, and Clarke examines human reactions to the visitation in the context of the Cold War. At the end of the day, Bradbury’s anti-censorship message is probably more important (even if it does get bogged down in elitist cultural critiques), so it’s probably for the best that it won. But, for my money, these other two are far better books and definitely worth a look.

Grade: B+

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