© 2010 David T. Wright.
All rights reserved.

Full text from the August 1995 issue
of The Last Ditch


The incendiary prophet



Remember how the future used to be? Great clean cities with robot-controlled cars zooming safely along graceful, broad freeways. Homes in which every task was done by machine, every need seen to with the help of advanced technology. A helicopter in every garage. Supersonic family excursions to Antarctica. Little Johnny riding his levitation scooter to visit Great Grandma, who was 120 but looked 55. Clean, safe, and abundant nuclear power. Prosperous colonies on Mars. You get the picture.

That's how the future looked when I was a kid. Magazines such as Popular Mechanics had articles about cars that would turn into airplanes, the automated Kitchen of the Future, hovercraft ocean liners, and telephones with little video screens in them. And as Man became more technologically advanced, it was just assumed that he would also become more advanced socially. He would learn how to be nice instead of envious, lustful, greedy, slothful, gluttonous, jealous, and hateful. So, naturally, there would be no more poverty, no more war, no more crime — or at least much less of such previously universal afflictions. We would all become one big, happy, albeit disgustingly homogenized, family.

How things have changed. Today, the popular vision is exactly opposite. Expressed in novels, television, and movies, life in today's future is like Hobbes's state of nature — or the future posited by Nicholas Strakon in Dark Suits and Red Guards: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. In George Lucas's 1971 movie "THX-1138," for instance, the Suits and Guards have achieved a high-tech, anthill-like society in which numbers have replaced names and sex is a crime — one shaven-headed Guard harpy rants maniacally against physical love the way ours do against tobacco, child abuse, or, well, normal physical love. In Arnold Schwarzenegger's exceedingly profitable "Terminator" movies, evil robots have taken over the world of the future and are trying to exterminate the human race. Other Ahnuld sci-fi movies have similarly pessimistic plots, for instance "The Running Man," in which individuals who offend the state are vicariously hunted to the death by contestants in a TV game show ("Ah'll be beck!" growls Ahnuld to the sleazy game show host. "Only in the reruns," is the gleeful reply). The syndicated TV show "Babylon 5" gives us a galaxy torn by war between different species, with an exhausted human race that has narrowly escaped being wiped out and is now tyrannized by a sort of mind-reading secret police called the "Psi-Corps."

The only major exception to this trend seems to be the popular "Star Trek" movies and TV series, '60s throwbacks that still envision a nauseatingly progressive future in which Man has "evolved" into a more enlightened and politically correct — not to mention deadly boring — entity. It's hard to decide which is worse, a future of chaos and collapse, or one Sanitized for Our Protection, devoid of any real passion or conflict, brightened only by the sight of the luscious, tightly clad Counselor Troi. Even here, though, humanity is supposed to have gone through a quasi-apocalyptic upheaval before achieving technocratic, psychotherapeutic nirvana.

The different apocalyptic scenarios seem to fall into two broad groups, usually containing elements of both. The lesser of the two is the environmental- or technological-disaster category, which includes worlds destroyed by nuclear war (Nevil Shute's novel On the Beach, the TV miniseries "The Day After," the film "The Road Warrior"), global warming or pollution (the film "Blade Runner"), overpopulation (the film "Soylent Green," James Blish's novel A Torrent of Faces), or the above-mentioned killer robots (the rather bad Australian film "Hardware").

The second, and more important category, is the 1984 or Brave New World scenario, in which the state or big business has enslaved or is in the process of enslaving the human race. Passable examples of this tendency are "THX-1138," "The Running Man," "Blade Runner" (mega-corporation creates synthetic human slaves), "Soylent Green" (sheeple are encouraged to die so that their bodies can be fed to those who remain), "They Live" (a movie in which the human race is unknowingly enslaved by aliens with whom the upper classes collaborate), and "Logan's Run" (deracinated, decultured subjects lead shallow, hedonistic lives and are killed before they become old). In most instances, enslavement has brought with it increasing levels of domestic criminality and chaos; in some, the regime keeps a tight, orderly lid on things.

Is it a mistake to attach too much importance to this trend? After all, it's not hard to imagine why such scenarios are so popular in today's Land of the Free. It's a lot more difficult to throw in a lot of ultraviolence, spectacular flaming explosions, flying blood and body parts, the f-word, exposed sexual paraphernalia, and all the other uplifting staples of the modern Hollywood flick if your screenplay assumes a tranquil, perfect society. Surely, the Future as Dystopia tendency owes much of its strength to the ease with which a novelist or producer can get away with all kinds of gaudy, debauched backgrounds, bizarre costumes, and weird and violent behavior, without the constraints of consistency and realism imposed by contemporary or historical settings.

But having said that, I think it's obvious that such scenarios also strike a chord in our hearts. In each case they reflect some aspect of what is happening around us, not to mention to us. As we descend ever further into slavery and degradation, it becomes ever more natural just to accept, even if unconsciously, the idea that more of the same awaits us. I don't know exactly how, but I think this constitutes much of the appeal of such scenarios.


None of my examples — not even George Orwell's 1984 — comes closer to describing our actual future than one of the granddaddies of the genre: Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. (Note: in deference to Mr. Bradbury, this review applies only to the new Ballantine/Del Rey paperback, for reasons that will become apparent later.) I first read it when I bought it through the Scholastic Book Club in sixth grade. (What delicious irony — remember when sixth-graders were expected to be able to read adult books?)

Unlike most of its successors, imitators, etc., Bradbury's novel — or novella, really — is an inspired criticism of what we now call the "information society," and the yawning chasm it is creating in our collective soul. In it he managed to predict with frightening accuracy such current social pathologies as the dumbing down of popular entertainment and education, our growing addiction to empty sensory stimulation, the rise of random violence among youth, the increasing anomie and alienation among everyone, the cult of pharmaciæ, the cult of consumerism, the cult of the victim and the resulting right of everyone (except normal white people) never to be offended, our increasing atomization, and, neither last nor least, the assault on truth and the life of the mind, which of course includes our society's increasingly vicious attacks on Christianity. In short, Bradbury was able to discern the outlines of today's Polite Totalitarianism. The amazing thing is that he did it more than 40 years ago.

Bradbury's protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman. His job is to respond to alarms, like today's firemen (sorry, "firefighters," soon to be changed, no doubt, to "People Who Lead Firefighting Lives") — but not to put fires out. His sole duty is to burn books and the houses in which they are found. Thus the title: 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which paper begins to burn. Montag and his colleagues start fires with a hose that squirts kerosene. I remember that the book itself seemed to smell of kerosene. Probably that was just owing to the solvents in the ink; but it added to the story's considerable impact on my soft, impressionable young mind.

Montag's world is a gilded cage of physical luxury and total spiritual emptiness. His wife, Mildred, sits mesmerized in their "parlor," a room with huge video screens taking up three entire walls. The screens are populated with people who yammer endlessly about absolutely nothing:

No matter when he came in, the walls were always talking to Mildred.

"Something must be done!"

"Yes, something must be done!"

"Well, let's not stand and talk!"

"Let's do it!"

"I'm so mad I could spit!"

What was it all about? Mildred couldn't say. Who was mad at whom? Mildred didn't quite know. What were they going to do? Well, said Mildred, wait around and see. [pp. 44-45]

That may have seemed a little far-fetched 40 years ago, when television was in its infancy, but surely not today, when many people leave the TV on as comforting background noise. I've asked the same kind of questions and gotten similar answers myself.

Mildred refers to the inhabitants of the walls as her "family"; to her, they are more real than real life. Remember, this book was written in 1953, when TV had nowhere near the influence and sophistication it has now. Yet Bradbury was able to foresee its mind-emptying potential, its ability, along with other devices, to addict people to sensory stimulation and degrade the capacity to reason — even to feel or enjoy the real world.

Those other devices include "Seashells," radios that fit in both ears. As in today's world, with the ubiquitous Walkman, people never have to be without audio stimulation. Mildred wears them in bed all night and when she goes out. And when things get one down, one can go to the amusement park to break windows or crush cars, or drive one's own car at fantastic speeds out into the country to run over wild creatures:

"... Right now I've got an awful feeling I want to smash things and kill things."

"Go take the beetle."

"No, thanks."

"The keys to the beetle are on the night table. I always like to drive fast when I feel that way. You get it up to around ninety-five and you feel wonderful. Sometimes I drive all night and come back and you don't know it. It's fun out in the country. You hit rabbits, sometimes you hit dogs. Go take the beetle." [p. 64]

This casual, remorseless brutality is also applied to fellow humans. Characters in the story occasionally refer to an ongoing wave of murders among teenagers (sound familiar?), and Montag is nearly killed when a carload of joyriding kids tries to run over him for fun. People turn in neighbors for having books, to watch their houses burn. Suicides are also commonplace. Mildred herself takes an overdose of sleeping pills, and Montag calls the stomach-pump squad:

They shut the cases up tight. "We're done." His anger did not touch them. They stood with the cigarette smoke curling around their noses and into their eyes without making them blink or squint. "That's fifty bucks."

"First, why don't you tell me if she'll be all right?"

"Sure, she'll be okay. We got all the mean stuff right in our suitcases here, it can't get at her now. As I said, you take out the old and put in the new and you're okay."

"Neither of you is an M.D. Why didn't they send an M.D. from Emergency?"

"Hell!" The operator's cigarette moved on his lip. "We get these cases nine or ten a night. Got so many, starting a few years ago, we had the special machines built. With the optical lens of course, that was new; the rest is ancient. You don't need an M.D., case like this; all you need is two handymen, clean up the problem in half an hour. Look" — he started for the door — "we gotta go. Just had another call on the old ear thimble...." [pp. 15-16]

The next morning, husband and wife behave as if it never happened.

While a lesser writer would have to content himself with beating the reader over the head with description and exposition, Bradbury is able to make his nightmare world real with economy and subtlety. The horror never grabs you by the throat as in a Stephen King novel; instead it creeps into your soul almost unnoticed. As in true Polite Totalitarianism, Bradbury's evil lurks behind a bland mask of banal respectability, conformism, and cloying solicitude; most of its subjects never even consciously sense its menace. Warning: don't read this book if you're feeling depressed or paranoid.

Of course, books — nonfiction, novels, poetry, even old magazines — are banned. If you're caught with one, you go to jail or the booby hatch, and your house is burned to the ground. Besides despair and spiritual emptiness, the stupefying combination of frantic sensual gratification and lack of mental exercise also results in the loss of memory. Not only historical memory — everyone has forgotten, for instance, that firemen used to put fires out, not start them — but personal memory as well. Neither Montag or his wife can remember when or where they first met.

Loss of historical memory, of course, is one of the main themes of 1984. Without it, people are adrift, bereft not only of the cultural signposts and touchstones vital to independent and creative thought but also of any sense of identity or rootedness. However, Montag's world is quite different from that of Winston Smith, and not just because its inhabitants are affluent. Here, the regime hasn't wiped out memory as a means of castrating its subjects. The people have done it to themselves. When Montag begins to have doubts about his job, his superior, Captain Beatty, explains how it happened:

"Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere. They could afford to be different. The world was roomy. But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths. Double, triple, quadruple population. Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of pastepudding norm, do you follow me?"

Beatty goes on to describe how literature was progressively condensed, boiled down, eviscerated to satisfy people able to sit still and concentrate for shorter and shorter periods:

"Speed up the film, Montag, quick.... Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! Whirl man's mind about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!"

But how did books come to be banned? —

"Now let's take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don't step on the toes of the dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean.... Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals." [pp. 54-58]

This is where things get really scary, because to someone reading the book when it came out, or even 20 years later, the captain's story must have seemed utterly fanciful. I remember that when I first read it, it seemed like a convenient scenario-setting device, taking some latent tendencies in society to ridiculous extremes. Today, of course, we know better, what with the increasing propensity to believe in a right not to be offended or disliked, and resulting growth of the list of recognized thought crimes. Idiots wanting to ban Huckleberry Finn because it uses the word "nigger" may be hilarious, but they're getting the upper hand.

Montag begins to realize what a wasteland he is living in, and starts to read books filched from his victims, quickly becoming seduced by the rich world that opens up to him. He succumbs to a self-destructive urge and tries to share this new experience with his wife's friends, forcing them to listen to a melancholy poem:

Mrs. Phelps was crying.

The others ... watched her crying grow very loud as her face squeezed itself out of shape. They sat, not touching her, bewildered with her display. She sobbed uncontrollably. Montag himself was stunned and shaken....

Mrs. Bowles stood up and glared at Montag. "You see, I knew it, that's what I wanted to prove! I knew it would happen. I've always said poetry and tears, poetry and suicide and crying and awful feelings, poetry and sickness; all that mush! Now I've had it proved to me! You're nasty, Mr. Montag, you're nasty!" [pp. 100-101]

That marks the beginning of the end for Montag, who soon is turned in by his own wife. He winds up on the run from the terrifying "Mechanical Hound," a robot that follows fugitives by their scent and kills with a hypodermic needle. But in an ironic twist, he manages to evade the Hound long enough that the authorities are forced to turn it on an innocent eccentric — eccentric because he is out for a walk — so that the watching TV audience will not get bored and switch channels.

Bradbury ends his fable on a note of optimism. Montag is taken in by a group of "walking books" who have each memorized entire volumes, and shortly thereafter, nuclear bombs fall on the city he has just fled. Unfortunately, we can't count on such a salubrious resolution to our own plight.

A final irony is revealed in the new Ballantine edition's afterword, in which Bradbury discusses how his own works, and those of others, have fallen victim to the same tendencies he prophesied. He gets letters suggesting that he "do over" short stories to enhance the roles of women and blacks. Editors of an anthology for students remove a reference to God. He describes a one-volume collection of 400 short stories — four hundred — edited for high school kids:

Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weighed more than a mosquito — out! Every simile that would have made a sub-moron's mouth twitch — gone! Any aside that explained the two-bit philosophy of a first-rate writer — lost!

Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepenciled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like — in the finale — Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant's attention — shot dead. [p. 176]

One wonders what will happen to Cliff Notes.

And then, the ultimate irony — censorship of a book about censorship:

Only six weeks ago, I discovered that, over the years, some cubby-hole editors at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from [Fahrenheit 451]. [p. 176]

Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for us.

Posted August 9, 2003

First published in 1995 by WTM Enterprises.
© 2010 David T. Wright. All rights reserved.

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