Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Thoughts on "Fahrenheit 451"

“Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury (1953) is considered a classic science fiction novel. It’s the story of a mixed up world where a fireman is someone who burns books and the houses where they are hidden, because books are evil.

Fahrenheit is usually considered to be a novel about censorship gone wild and that certainly is a part of it, but it is also clearly about the pitfalls of increasing government control as well as a very dark prediction about the future of television.

In fact, it was eerie to me how accurately Bradbury predicted the rise of reality television. Bradbury describes a population that is addicted to watching “the Family,” it’s a kind of a 3-D soap opera. We don’t have “the Family,” but we do have a population that seems to hunger for Reality TV. Especially creepy was the scene where Guy Montag is running from the hound and every house he passes he sees in the window that the people are watching the chase on TV. Then he hears an announcer tell everyone to look out their front door and Montag imagines millions of people all opening their front doors.

Many of the characters in the novel are memorable. Montag’s wife, Mildred is such an instantly unlikable character, there is just nothing ever redeeming about her. Captain Beatty, who always sounds so well read. You can’t help but imagine that he must have a secret stash of books himself somewhere. And Clarisse, the girl that Montag befriends at the beginning of the novel. She shows so much intelligence and free-thinking, her household was clearly one in which they read in secret. I kept thinking the novel would reintroduce her and/or her family.

Bradbury just doesn’t write like a typical science fiction authors. Typical science fiction is event and idea driven, while Bradbury writes in a style that is a bit more poetic and descriptive.

In general, I liked Bradury’s writing, but at times, in the novel, the prose would get so descriptive that I’d lose track of what was actually happening. However, in other parts of the novel the increasing description was masterfully handled, such as when Montag is being chased by the hound, the text begins to blur and confuse until we aren’t quite sure what’s actually happening vs. what Montag is imagining.

I read the 50th Anniversary edition which has an Afterword (1982) and Coda (1979) (both by Bradbury). It wasn't until I read these that I realized that Fahrenheit was Bradbury’s first novel. These two short pieces made me wish that Fahrenheit had been written later in Bardbury’s career, the Coda especially is by an author at the height of his confidence and creativity. Here is a large sample, Bradbury was talking about how people send him letters and ask him to make rewrites to his novels and update them and then he mentioned how a school reader anthology tried to edit one of his short stories:

Some five years back, the editors of yet another anthology for school readers put together a volume with some 400 (count ‘em) short stories in it. How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe, Maupassant and Bierce into one book?

Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy. 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.

Do you begin to get the damned and incredible picture?
How did I react to all of the above?
By “firing” the whole lot.
By sending rejection slips to each and every one.
By ticketing the assembly of idiots to the far reaches of hell.
The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.

Reading these two add-ons made me very interested to read the stage play adaptation of “Fahrenheit” that Bradbury wrote, if it’s as good as this Coda…then it would be well worth reading. And apparently a lot of things in the novel are expanded upon, especially Captain Beatty’s part.

Bradbury thought 451 degrees Fahrenheit was the temperature at which paper combusts. It is actually 842° Fahrenheit or 450° Celsius. I bet Bradbury gets letters all the time that say he should rename the novel “Celsius 450” or “Fahrenheit 842.” How absurd can you get? By that logic it could also be called, “Kelvin 724.”

One of the reasons why Fahrenheit is so well know is that it has been on the book list of many American schools for decades. On the flip side, I’ve heard sometimes that Fahrenheit is banned by some American schools. This may be true, but only in isolated cases, according to the sources I found it is not one of the commonly banned classics.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Thoughts on "The Foresight War"

In this review of “The Foresight War” by Anthony Williams, I will refer to the author as Tony, because the two of us are both active members of the Classic Science Fiction Message Board. Where we discuss all kinds of things science fiction related.

The plot of the novel concerns two present day (2004) WWII historians traveling back to 1934. One historian is British (Don Erlang), and the other is German (Konrad Herrman). Each of the historians informs their respective governments as to what will happen during the war. Both countries use the knowledge from the historians to better prepare for the war so that weapons that in our history were available in the middle or end of the war are mass produced by the start of the war.

Time Travel

Erlang briefly talks about his mother and father being just children in the 1930, but he never goes and seeks them out. I would have found it irresistible, I mean, his parents might have just been children, but what about his grandparents? I’d love to meet my grandfather when he was in his prime; he died before I was born. He was a doctor and had a private practice in a suburban town for many years. If I’d gone back in time, I’d probably go see him as a patient. That kind of harmless encounter probably wouldn’t put the space-time continuum at risk.

Erlang speculates as to the nature of time travel. He cites a time paradox that is worth mentioning. Since he has altered the course of the war there is a chance that one of his parents might get killed by a bomb during the Blitz that in the normal course of things didn’t explode anywhere near them. If they died then Erlang would have never existed, therefore Erland couldn’t travel back in time and alter events therefore history would return to the way it was in the first place. Unless, as is speculated, Erlang’s time traveling created a parallel universe or dimension which is no longer looped to the previous future, but instead free to explore an entirely different future.

My theory is that the “Foresight” universe is tangent dimension created by an all-powerful being (the author) just to have a playground to test his what ifs. (The novel's Afterword pretty much proves my theory).

German Historian

Herrman, the German historian who is sent back through time, was written as less capable then Erlang. He just didn’t seem to be a historian on the same level as Erlang. I couldn’t help but wonder how much more prepared for the war Germany would have been if Herrman had truly been Erlang’s equal. Also, I never really understood why Herrman worked with Hitler and Himmler and the rest when he clearly found them repulsive. His motivation was to create a stronger Germany that wouldn’t end up controlled by Russia for decades. From the beginning, I would have looked for a ways to circumvent and destroy Hitler and the Nazi’s, not work with them.


Especially helpful is the glossary in the back of the book that lists all the military terms used in the book and also explains all the equipment used in the book. So when I read about a Churchill tank, I could look it up in the glossary and learn it’s specifications as well as whether the Churchill in the “Foresight” universe was different from the historical Churchill tanks.

This means that the book is readable to a Joe Shmoo like me, who is not one of these dumb Americans you read about that doesn’t know who fought in WWII. But, I am also not an expert on the war. Heck, for most of the book I kept wondering when they were going to start building trenches.


The action of the war is played out in vignettes that run anywhere from one paragraph to a page and a half. Most times the vignettes are strung together so they tell the story of a battle or a certain campaign. You see the action from different perspectives such as, British planes, then German U-boat, then a British tank, etc. Sometimes it was difficult for me to figure out what I was reading about, and by the time I understood the perspective changed again.

The perspective also shifts back to Erlang or Hermann who are in respective command centers and are reacting to the events of the day like a sort of Greek Chorus evaluating the course of the war and providing exposition.

Sometimes the vignettes were emotionally powerful such as the story of the British plane that fires at a German bus. Shrapnel from the bus ends up downing the plane. The pilot bails out and hits the ground near the bus. It is then that he realizes that the bus he destroyed was full of children. A crowd of Germans grabs the pilot and lynches him. As they tie the rope around his neck he pleads, “I didn’t know it was children.” This level of pathos is impossible to sustain, especially with so many short pieces.

One part of the book that worked really well was the part that dealt with Pearl Harbor. Morgan, an RAF (Royal Air Force) officer, is one of the few that know about future events. He is given the horrible task of going to Pearl Harbor to minimized US loses without telling them there is going to be an attack ahead of time. This piece wasn’t really longer then some of the other perspectives, but it meant more to me because I’d gotten to know Morgan throughout the novel.
That would have been my preference to follow certain soldiers’ perspectives for longer periods. I know the whole point of the book was to explore questions like how this British tank would have faired against that German tank, but without having the humanity of a soldier you get to know and care about, it just may as well be robot tanks fighting other robot tanks.

The Holocaust

I felt like it was weird that the Holocaust was only mentioned once or twice by Erlang and nothing about it was ever seen first hand. However, I realize concentrating on this horrible genocide wouldn’t have added anything to the focus of the novel, which was exploring how the “Foresight” universe differed from our own.

The Ending
(Warning major Spoilers)

The end of the book reminded me of two recent movies, both of which came out after this book. Is Hollywood stealing ideas from you Tony?

The movie “Valkyrie”(2008) is all about the ill-fated German resistance movement. Operation Valkyrie is not mentioned by name in “Foresight,” but it is pretty clear that after Herrman blew up all of the Nazi leaders, the resistance used the Reserve Army to seize and remove the Nazi Party under the false pretense that the SS had attempted a coup d'état.

The second movie that came to mind was “Inglourious Basterds” (2009). At the end of the movie several plots to assassinate Hitler and the other leaders of the Nazi Party collide with explosive results. The traitorous SS Colonel Hans Landa describes the film premiere in Paris that is being attended by Hitler, Himmler, Göring, Goebbels and other prominent part members as having “all the rotten eggs in one basket.”

I think the book ended in the right spot, at the end of the German/British conflict, because that’s what the book was generally about. However, I did have a lot of questions about what may have happened next:

-Did the increased Japanese navel losses at the beginning of the war cause the use of atomic weapons to be unnecessary?
-Was the United Nations created?
-Was the State of Israel declared?
-When did Britain “get the Bomb”?
-Did Russia emerge from the war a super power?
-What happened to Mussolini?


I also reviewed Tony’s second novel “Scales.” here. I gave it an A+. It is a great read and it’s available for free here.