In a world where fictional books are forbidden because they cause discord and unhappiness, where possession of them is a crime, Guy Montag’s uniform is decorated with the numbers 451, a symbol of his office, for that is the temperature (Farenheit) at which paper burns. Guy is a fireman – his job is to burn those books that remain. Until the day one flutters toward him, half open, and he uccumbs to reading the contents.
I don’t know what I ought to be more embarrassed by – that I hadn’t read this literary classic until now, or that I don’t get what the big deal is. To me, Farenheit 451 is a fairly unexceptional piece of mid-fifties science fiction, replete with all the hallmarks – the novel is slender in size and scope, an all-male main cast with paper cutouts for female characters, an original central idea that isn’t well-supported (the novel doesn’t explicitly say that it’s only fiction, and poetry, and religious works, that are banned, but there must be some writing around because Guy’s literate), and a missing back story – how we went from being a literate globe to one where the written word is banned everywhere.
These are flaws common to much of the writing in the so-called Golden Age of science fiction. But compared to another popular classic, Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes, for instance, Farenheit 451 falls short. Like that book, Planet of the Apes is slender, the transformation of the world is unexplained (though there are hints), the female characters are less present and fully realised than the males, and the basic concept isn’t wholly supported. But the writing is compelling, the characters relatable, and the twist – if you haven’t already been exposed to the film – is unexpected.
Guy’s transition from fireman to protector of books isn’t well explained, and though we see the transformative moment, it transpires that he has a sizeable collection of books at home. He also has no concept of human nature or the ingrained nature of societal mores, so he exposes himself to his wife and her friends in a way that made no sense at all to me.
I’m sure that, at the time it was written, the radical idea, the warning of the potential for television to bring everyone down to the lowest median, and the well-imagined technology (most of which currently exists) was compelling. But my overwhelming thought when reading this was that it could have been so much better – with fully fleshed characters, a decent backstory and explicit motivation, this may truly have been worthy. Without that I don’t understand how it’s retained its allure when so much better imagined writing in the genre is unacclaimed, and when the genre itself is so derided. I’m glad I read it, so I no longer feel a nagging sense that I Should read it, but I can’t see a need to return. - Alex