There are those books that have become so famous—so widely studied, adapted, and interpreted—they become almost invisible. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury is one such book—millions have read it (six decades after its first publication, it’s still almost always the number one seller in trade paperback science fiction, month after month), or even just absorbed details of it through cultural osmosis, to the point it’s just there, in the same way the sun and your smartphone are there. But with a fresh film adaptation on the way from HBO this weekend, it’s the perfect time to take another look at this classic, which hasn’t lost a bit of it’s edge over the last 60 years. Despite the sheer number of school reports written about it, there are still a few things we’re willing to bet you don’t know about Ray Bradbury’s most famous novel.
It’s not about burning books
Collective cultural memory suggests Fahrenheit 451 is about censoring books—mainly because of plot elements involving book burning, and the fact that book memorization is treated as a sign of rebellion, and also probably all the times Ray Bradbury himself talked about McCarthyism, and how the burning of books in Nazi Germany inspired the story. But dig deeper into Bradbury’s own discussions about his novel (and carefully reread the text) and you’ll see the author was really obsessed with the encroachment of technology, especially television, on the tradition of the written word. Bradbury positions the burning of books as a symptom of what’s happened to society, not the cause—he’s much more interested in the erosion of critical thought and imagination caused by society’s consumption of media. And this is in part because …
The government isn’t the villain. We are.
Bradbury makes clear that the censoring of books wasn’t imposed on the people of his future dystopia by a brutal totalitarian government, but rather by the people themselves, as they sought to avoid uncomfortable thoughts and disturbing concepts. “Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo,” Captain Beatty says. “Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.” The burning of books follows the extreme condensation and Bowdlerization of books—when those halfway measure don’t remove the disturbing thoughts, the books themselves have to go.
There’s a video game adaptation, and it was written by Bradbury
If you’re jonesing for a sequel, you can find the nearest approximation if you can track down a copy of the 1984 video game Bradbury developed—and an old computer to play it on. It’s a direct continatuion in which you play as Guy Montag, former Fireman, now seeking to make contact with the underground resistance working to save books. An interactive text adventure with some graphics, the game relies on quotes from famous written works that Montag must collect and pass on to resistance members to memorize them for posterity.
It inspired the internet code for censorship
You know that a 404 Error means “page not found.” If your browser ever returns a 451 Error, it means that the material you’re seeking has been censored by a government in some way. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) approved this addition to the HTTP protocol in 2015. It should be noted that sites can be forced to display a standard 404 through legal means, so this is by no means a reliable way of telling how much of the world’s information is being blocked—but it’s s start, as well as a marvelous legacy for Bradbury.
Bradbury considered it his only sci-fi novel
Despite Rachel Bloom’s declaration that Ray Bradbury was, “the greatest sci-fi writer in history,” Bradbury himself considered almost all of his works to be “fantasy,” and named Fahrenheit 451 his only real work of science fiction. But what, you cry, about The Martian Chronicles? Well, Bradbury’s own metric was whether or not the events of the book could actually happen; he considered his Mars stories to be fantasy for the simple reason that they never could, . The events of Fahrenheit 451, however? Chillingly possible.
It predicted the future
Despite his belief that he wasn’t really a sci-fi writer, Bradbury managed to predict a fistful of technologies in Fahrenheit 451 without even trying. Earbuds and bluetooth devices? Check. Flat screen televisions? Check. Facetime? Check. ATMs? Check. Drones? Check. And if you’ve seen and been terrified by Boston Dynamics walking (and running) robot dogs (or the Black Mirror episode “Metalhead”), Bradbury basically invented those, too. Curiously, the one thing he didn’t see coming was digital books. Which is ironic, because…
Bradbury didn’t want a digital version of the novel to exist
Bradbury was not down with technology in general. In fact, well into his old age, he made a lot of… reactionary statements about the internet that demonstrated a basic lack of technological understanding. He regarded ebooks in particular as harmful, and refused to let his books be published in digital formats until 2011—when he was 91 years old. The story goes that Simon & Schuster basically threw money at him, explaining they simply couldn’t do a deal in the 21st century without ebooks. Bradbury finally agreed. He extracted one last concession: libraries would be allowed to get digital copies of Fahrenheit 451 for free.
There’s a prequel, but you probably haven’t read it
At one point in the novel, Clarisse tells Montag her uncle was once arrested for being a pedestrian, which many take as a veiled reference to Bradbury’s short story The Pedestrian, published in 1951. Upon rereading, it’s clear that story is a precursor of sorts, set in a world where literally everyone stays inside watching television all the time. The protagonist likes to walk through the ruined, abandoned streets at night, and is arrested by a robotic police officer simply because he’s not conforming to the typical behavior of his television-obsessed neighbors. While no reference to Firemen is made, the robot doesn’t understand when the protagonist tells it he is a writer, because no one reads any more.
We don’t know when it takes place
Curiously, it’s impossible to pin down the year in Fahrenheit 451. While there is technology that was at the time futuristic, all of it would have been conceivable in the 1950s (if not ready for mass-market production), and there are few references to any sort of then-future history. In part this is due to the general lack of knowledge within the culture depicted—history books, after all, burn as easily as novels. But Bradbury may have done this intentionally, in order to avoid seeing the book dated, or to allow people to apply it to their own lives. If you accept The Pedestrian as a direct prequel, the novel takes place in 2053, but it’s impossible to prove with the text of the book itself.
“451” just sounds cool
Finally, you probably know that Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper burns, a bit of accepted wisdom that is fundamentally wrong. Paper will absolutely burn at that temperature. It will also burn at lower temperatures, or not until the heat is cranked higher. It all depends on the kind of paper, and whether you’re talking about a single sheet or a thick book. Some point out that the temperature at which paper will spontaneously burn is pretty close to 451 degrees Fahrenheit, but even, so there’s some range there. The fact is, Bradbury asked one scientist for a number, liked the sound of it, and didn’t care to do any additional research. Which is great, because “Celsius 233” doesn’t have the same ring to it.
When did you first read Bradbury’s classic novel?