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Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

01/05/2010. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

Buy Fahrenheit 451 in the USA - or Buy Fahrenheit 451 in the UK

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pub: Voyager/HarperCollins. 192 page paperback. Price: 7.99 (UK). ISBN 978-0-00-654606-1.

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'Fahrenheit 451' is Ray Bradbury's classic Science Fiction novel about the dumbing down and anti-intellectualism of modern society, illustrated in the story by the outlawing of books in favour of reality TV, soap operas and sixty second news updates. (Sound familiar?) Originally published in 1953, this edition includes a 50th anniversary introduction and afterword which provide a fascinating insight into how Bradbury came to write the book.

Guy Montag is a fireman in a future America where the job involves setting fire to the houses of dissidents, rather than putting house fires out. Montag is unhappy with his life but isn't sure why and doesn't know what to do about it. His complacency is shattered by three events. First, his wife attempts suicide. Then he befriends Clarisse, the care-free teen-age daughter of some new neighbours. Finally, he attends a routine house burning where the elderly lady owner refuses to leave her books. Instead, she sets fire to her house, her books and herself, rather than allow the firemen that final victory over her.

When Montag starts to question his life in response to these events, he wonders whether the answers to his problems may be found in the very books he is sworn to destroy. However, he isn't the first fireman to have doubts about his calling. As his station chief starts to keep a very close eye on Montag, he has to decide whether he is willing to risk everything in order to find out who he really is.

For a book dealing with such weighty issues, 'Fahrenheit 451' is anything but turgid. It rips along at a cracking pace, not letting up for a moment. At the same time, however, it also demonstrates Bradbury's great strengths as a writer. The prose is full of imagery and wordplay, making it a joy to read and re-read.

It is fascinating to see how many of Bradbury's technological and social predictions have come true since he put them down on paper in the mid-1950s. I was particularly taken by the repeated references to Montag's alienation from his wife, who spends her waking hours either totally immersed in their interactive home cinema system or listening to her iPod equivalent. If, like me, you've ever witnessed a couple sitting in a pub or restaurant, with one partner chatting animatedly on their mobile phone while the other looks on, wondering why they bothered to come, you'll recognise the point that Bradbury makes as being only too contemporary.

If there is one problem with this novel, it is that it is too short, at around 50,000 words. At that length, it is inevitable that some plot points have to be sketched in or left out. The most glaring of these is the question of what actually happened to Clarisse McClellan, the young neighbour who befriended Montag in the first few pages of the story. Half-way through the book, Montag's wife casually mentions that Clarisse was run over by a car a couple of days earlier and her family consequently moved away. However, despite the deep impact that Clarisse had previously had on Montag, he does nothing to find out the truth about her disappearance and we hear no more about it.

'Fahrenheit 451' is now in its sixth decade, yet it still seems capable of being re-invented in order to prove its ongoing relevance to us today. Bradbury himself turned it into a stage-play in 2005, an authorised graphic novel version was released last year and there are apparently plans to produce a re-make of the 1966 movie version, although these seem to be mired in the endless delays so typical of modern Hollywood.

Regardless of attempts to translate the book into other media, 'Fahrenheit 451' remains a famous SF novel for good reasons. The story is tautly paced, deeply compelling and stylishly told. As it approaches its sixtieth birthday, it still has something important to tell us about the human condition. This is a novel that can be read in a single sitting but that will resonate with you long after you turn the final page.

Patrick Mahon

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