― Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury, in Fahrenheit 451, creates a dystopia where the state keeps its citizenry in a virtual stupor—illiterate—as a means of maintaining control. Books, in particular, are viewed as an enemy of the state, which in turn sets out to destroy every book in existence. Fire is the weapon of choice. Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which books burn.
Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451 in 1953. He says his inspiration was not merely a concern that people were reading less, but his sense—and this was 60 years ago—that television and other electronic media would come to rule our lives, and to isolate us from each other. He also predicted that individuals would take pills to stay happy and calm, and that we would spend our days living a virtual existence filled with serial reality shows, ever distancing, if not protecting, ourselves from the real world. While the novel assigns cause to the state, the effect is what concerned him most. As it happened, much of the reality he foretold and its disturbing effects characterize modern life as we know it today.
Kingsley Amis, in New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction (1960), published this quote from Bradbury: “In writing the short novel Fahrenheit 451 I thought I was describing a world that might evolve in four or five decades. But only a few weeks ago, in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog. I stood staring after them, absolutely stunned. The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. From this sprang tiny copper wires which ended in a dainty cone plugged into her right ear. There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap-opera cries, sleep-walking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there. This was not fiction.”
The protagonist in Fahrenheit 451 is a character named Guy Montag, who is a firefighter, but his fight is against the existence of books, and his job is to destroy them by burning down any house where they are found. Montag’s “chance encounter” with a strange young woman causes him to question his work and fundamental assumptions, and he becomes at first curious about books—what could they possibly say?—and then obsessed with preserving them. Fahrenheit 451 is in large measure the story of Montag’s evolution from being a tool of the state to a human being. While critics did not acclaim Fahrenheit 451 as a literary masterpiece, it is universally regarded as one of the great American works of science fiction.
A movie based on Fahrenheit 451 was produced in 1966 by Francois Truffaut, and a graphic novel by Tim Hamilton was published in 2009.