One of the most important functions of dystopian fiction is to satirise and criticise contemporary society. These stories are set in a near or far future in which the bad sides (according to the writer) of contemporary culture are exaggerated. These hypothetical prospects need not be realistic per se. Dystopian fiction does not necessarily predict how things are going to become, but rather highlights different aspects of how society already is, often to warn or open peoples eyes to what can be subtle dangers in society.
In Ray Bradbury’s classic novel from 1953, Fahrenheit 451, he describes a future United States where books are forbidden and mass media is omnipresent. The main character, Montag, is a fireman, and in this future world firemen are not putting out fires but making fires. Montag and his colleagues track down people who are illegally keeping books to burn the books—and in some cases people along with the books. His wife, Mildred, is a housewife with severe memory problems who watches television all day.
The dystopian world of Fahrenheit 451 may seem absurd at first, but at second thought one can see it bares alarming similarity to the modern western world of today. Obviously, books are not forbidden today, but the literacy levels are decreasing. For every generation people read less, choosing the screen instead of the book. When Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451, the mobile phone did not exist. In the 40s and 50s, the television had its significant breakthrough and Bradbury’s book is a response to the way this new technology changed peoples lives. This is particularly apparent in the case of Mildred. Har constant TV-watching makes her detached from the real world. She is very cold, distant, and unreadable, and her only attachment is to the “family” in the soap opera she watches. She even attempts to commit suicide, seemingly unknowingly.
The case of Mildred is very severe, and hopefully, TV-watching has not caused such symptoms for anyone. But watching TV too much as a means of escape from reality is dangerous. The room with television screens on all four walls in which Mildred sits can be compared to the new technological innovation of virtual reality, in which one is almost completely transported to the world of the screen. Mildred’s constant screen-watching can also be compared to the modern usage of smartphones. In a study made by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2010 about the media usage of teens, they found that an average 8- to 18-year-old in the US consumes media for 7.5 hours a day. If counting the recommended eight hours of sleep that would mean teenagers use media for almost half of their awake time. The smartphone has nearly become what in Fahrenheit 451 is the four-walled television.
There is a passage in the book in which Beatty talks about how why books have disappeared. He explains how books got shorter and shorter in the twentieth century. ”Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. I’m exaggerating, of course.” The irony of this statement is that Beatty’s ”exaggeration” is no exaggeration at all. Now there are websites providing summaries of classics as short as a text message or snapchat.
But what is the problem about this? Why do we need books at all?
This question is raised in Fahrenheit 451 as well. Montag goes to his friend Faber for guidance. ”We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren’t happy,” he complains, suggesting books may be the key to happiness. But Faber rejects this. ”It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books,” he says. ”There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us … They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless … The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not.”
Through the words of Faber, Bradbury asserts that there is nothing wrong with television per se, but simply in the way television as means of constant entertainment can hinder us to understanding the world and ourselves. The purpose of art, according to Bradbury, is to ”show the pores in the face of life.” These pores are the close details and unexplored parts of existence. They can be uncomfortable to approach, but they are important. This is reminiscent of what Milan Kundera writes about in The Art of the Novel, in which he claims the purpose of the novel is the förebygga what he calls ”the forgetting of being.” Kundera writes: ”The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything … The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question.” It is this questioning of life and of society that is the true power of the novel. As changes occur in society, novels are needed to explore how these changes affect us. And this is what Fahrenheit 451 does: it explores the effect of technology on our lives. And today, more than sixty years since Bradbury’s novel was published, with all the technological development that has occurred, Fahrenheit 451 is more relevant than ever.