Dystopian, But Not Depressing: Fahrenheit 451

I don’t care much for dystopian fiction. The intentional bleakness, the pervasive misery, the general feeling of “mankind screwed everything up and now the world is a sucking, swirling eddy of despair punctuated only by brief flashes of false hope” —none of that appeals to me. And yet, I love Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 dearly. 

Maybe it’s because, although we the audience can see the world in this book is horrible, the people inside it aren’t miserable. They like their lives. They’re content. They shouldn’t be, but they are. Their technology has lulled them into a state of minimal awareness where their every need and whim is fulfilled with minimal effort. Nobody has to work too hard, nobody has to worry, nobody has to think.

In fact, thinking is a problem. Thinking for yourself, especially. Much better to agree with whatever everyone else is saying. Go with the flow. Put your little seashell-like earbuds in your ears and let music and the voices of strangers pour through your mind, even when you’re asleep. Spend your days with your giant, interactive screens full of strangers you call your friends and family, not with actual people. Or invite people over to watch with you. Don’t look up at the sky or down at the ground and definitely don’t look around you at all the other people who have also been turned into passive tech addicts.

If that sounds eerily like the world of 2019, not a dystopian future, that’s a testament to Bradbury’s ability to see where the technology of the 1950s could lead and to the way humanity really doesn’t change much. 

In the world of Fahrenheit 451, books are the enemy. Books contain thoughts and ideas. Books make people ask questions. Books are very, very powerful. That means they need to be destroyed. People are happier when they’re not asking questions, not wondering, not thinking, after all. If you can keep books away from them, they’ll be better off. Compliant and complacent and comfortable. So firemen burn books. All books, any books, everywhere they’re found. They burn the houses of people who have books. 

And they enjoy it. The first line of the book is “It was a pleasure to burn.” Guy Montag is one such fireman, a man with a bland name as nondescript as the man himself. Just a guy. A Monday sort of guy, boring and repetitive and gray. (“Montag” is the German word for “Monday.”) Then, one day, he reads part of a book before he burns it. And he discovers books are not horrible, nasty, terrible things, but helpful and beautiful and filled with all the life his world lacks.

Montag’s whole world tilts sideways. He goes from an obedient automaton to a man with secrets, hopes, dreams. A man fully alive, not a man half dead. He slowly turns against the strictures of his society, hesitant at first, then gradually hungry for change. He doesn’t try to topple a regime or take down an evil dictator, but he tries in his own small way to change what he can.

That’s what I like best of all about this book: the theme that one person doing one thing to make a small difference is still worthy of attention, is still important. Even if only a few people ever know about it. Dystopian or not, this book is not depressing. It’s uplifting and empowering to anyone who wants to make a difference to those around them but knows they’re not ever going to lead a revolution or become the poster child for change.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s western fairy tale retelling novels “Cloaked” and “Dancing & Doughnuts” are now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com

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