Ray Bradbury passed away yesterday, June 5th 2012, at the age of 91. He was a widely influential author of science fiction and fantasy and among the last writers from the heyday of science fiction in the 1950s. He is best known for Fahrenheit 451, the dystopian novel that seems ever more prescient with every year.
I have not read much Ray Bradbury, mainly because, as he himself noted, Fahrenheit 451 was his only science fiction novel. According to Bradbury, the Martian Chronicles and other similar works should be classified as fantasy, since they cannot happen, and I tend to agree with him. He thought of himself as a myth-maker and that was his entire aim, because “myths have staying power” and he explicitly wanted to live forever through his work.
One consistent characteristic of Ray Bradbury endears him to me, though, and that’s his ever-present skepticism about technology. Unlike many science fiction writers, he did not assume that life in a world with advanced technology would be a wonderful thing. On explaining why he opposed turning Fahrenheit 451 into an e-book (which would have been highly ironic given the book’s premise), he said, “We have too many cellphones. We’ve got too many internets. We have got to get rid of those machines. We have too many machines now.” I don’t agree with him, but I sometimes think we’re plunging into technology without really thinking about what it’s doing to us, and whether it is really benefiting us. It’s like using a hammer without being aware that you might accidentally crush your finger while holding the nail. Yes, the technology is useful, but no one ever mentions the drawbacks.
Well, not no one. Ray Bradbury did. In fact, that’s what Fahrenheit 451 is about. It’s not about censorship from the government, it’s about the fact that the people are so robbed of imagination and so blinded by technology (especially by television), that most of them are all too willing to give up the books. Living in their own little worlds, their lives and interactions with others are purely superficial. They can’t understand what books, and especially what poetry, was all about, because those sorts of deep, personal experiences are too far removed from their television (and now internet) driven lives. It’s not about the government burning the books, it’s about the people letting the books get burned.
And he got it spot on. If you look at the world today, people are reading less and less, and what they do read is painfully superficial. The way people make “friends” on the internet makes it all too clear that we’re losing any sense of what friendship is all about. And love? Do the old poets still resonate with us at all? As Bradbury himself noticed, people walk around plugged into some device or another – an iPod or something of the kind – and don’t really experience the world or each other anymore.
And imagination? That’s the kicker. Technology itself is now hindering our ability to create more advanced technology. People no longer take the dream of going to the stars seriously. Heck, they laughed when Newt Gingrich talked about setting up a base on the Moon – a goal that seemed perfectly logical in Bradbury’s heyday. But now, people don’t have the imagination for that (except Newt, apparently, who still remembers how things used to be more than how things are).
Most people don’t think of Fahrenheit 451 as dealing the perils of the world we have actually managed to create. They would rather not think about the fact that the dystopia of the novel is rapidly coming true. So, instead, it has become more comforting to think of it as a book railing against government censorship, even though that was not it’s purpose, because we all hate government censorship and we’re comfortable with opposing it. All the tech toys we’ve accumulated are . . . well, we’ve gotten attached to them, haven’t we? We don’t want to think about what they’re doing to us, because we don’t want to think about giving up on Facebook, or texting, or gods forbid television, even though we instinctively know that it would be to our benefit.
The legacy of Ray Bradbury? We will eventually become the shallow creatures depicted in his only science fiction novel if we haven’t already, we know it, and we’re not going to do anything about it. Books? What books?