Celsius 233

It is more than a little unfair to reach back and judge a science fiction novel armed with the perspective of almost half-a-century. Tough, life is rarely fair. In 1953, Ray Bradbury published one of his most famous novels, Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s view of the future was radically wrong, except in two important ways.

The fundamental theme of the book is censorship in the not too distant future. Books are outlawed and in Bradbury’s world the role of firemen is not to prevent fires but to incinerate books. Firemen implement the censorship by rushing, sirens screeching, to houses where books are secretly hidden; piling the books up on the front lawns; igniting the piles; and watching as the pages crumble to ashes. Whole houses are sometimes burned to make sure that no books escape detection. The title refers to the temperature at which paper spontaneously bursts into flames.

The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman who develops a conscience. On one book burning expedition, a woman decides to sit with her books while flames consume them all. Montag wonders what could be so important about books that someone would elect to die for them. This, and conversations with an insightful teenage girl next-door, convince Montag to steal books during a book-burning episode and actually read them. This decision radically redirects Montag’s future, eventually pitting him against the forces of censorship.

The modern reader is, of course, struck by many incongruities between the Bradbury’s future and the one that we know. Smoking is popular, cars fly down the road at incredible speeds unobstructed by traffic jams, most women stay at home while their husbands go to work, and nuclear war is relatively common. These are the sorts of simple extrapolations one might have glibly made in the early 1950s. Simple extrapolations of social or even technological trends are rarely correct. There are too many feedback mechanisms.

However, Bradbury accurately foresaw two important cultural phenomena. First, even over fifty years, we would not be able to switch away from the Fahrenheit to Celsius temperature scales. People, at least in the United States, still think in terms of Fahrenheit; and given American stubbornness, this is likely to continue in the foreseeable future. One might have expected a future switch to a more rational temperature scale. The book could have been named Celsius 233.

More importantly, Bradbury accurately foresaw that many will be distracted beyond consciousness by trifling activities. Some are totally occupied, but not active; busy while accomplishing anything. The rapid increase of mind-occupying distractions keeps people from reading and serious thought. The action on Bradbury’s wall-sized televisions substitute for lived lives, much a present day video games become addictive and time consuming. People are pummeled with so much visual and audio information or useless data, that it is impossible to sort out ideas.

As Bradbury explains:

“Cram people `full of noncombustible, data,’ the fire captain explains. Chock them so damn full of `facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely brilliant with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving.”

Bradbury believes as people are weaned from the disciplines of attention, thought, and patience required to read, that books would first loose currency and ultimately be thought dangerous and banned. In truth, if a society grows so preoccupied that it avoids the serious questions posed by serious books, there would probably be little reason to bother outlawing books. They would fall into disuse spontaneously.

If the popularity of Amazon.com is any indication, despite the growth in distractions, there still seems to be enough time for reading books; well, at least for buying them.

It may have been unfair to judge Fahrenheit 451 too harshly, but unlike many novels, people still read it half-a-century later. This alone should be sufficient consolation to Bradbury.

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