Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

This is the 225th blog entry on Book Ramblings and I have chosen a dystopian classic, Fahrenheit 451 named after the temperature at which paper starts to spontaneously combust and a book that brings terror to all lovers of books. I first read it in my mid teens and amazingly haven’t read it since, presumably the original book I read back then was from the local library, as although I believed I had a copy somewhere I couldn’t find it so had to buy a new paperback to do the review. The back page of this edition gives a brief, although slightly inaccurate (see later), summary of the book’s plot.

Rear cover of Harper Voyager edition

Guy Montag was a fireman, there was a rumour that firemen had once followed alarms to burning houses and put them out, but that couldn’t be true as houses were all fireproof weren’t they? So firemen followed alarms on reports of houses where books could be found and turned up in their great salamander engines full of kerosene and burnt everything inside. Then one day as Montag is walking home he meets sixteen year old Clarisse McClellan and unusually for a time and place where social interactions are far from the norm she starts to talk to him. Her family had recently moved in and unlike all the other houses which shut out the outside world this one had lights on in all the rooms, the windows were open and the sound of people talking could be heard as you passed, such a strange place and by implication a strange family. The reader starts to expect these encounters on the way home as the first ten percent of the novel is built around them as she introduces him to other experiences such as savouring the rain on your face or brushing a dandelion under his chin to see if he is in love and then just as suddenly as she is introduced she is gone. In the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition Bradbury states that killing her off was a mistake and in the play and opera versions he had written she survives and reappears near the end. In this he was inspired by François Truffaut, whose film adaptation in 1966 retained Clarisse, but in the novel we now focus on the fire station and Montag’s home and wife Mildred.

It is at the station that things start getting nasty for Montag, it is clear that the fire chief Beatty suspects Montag of saving books but Beatty himself is clearly well read, he quotes from lots of books during his conversations with Montag for instance, but he will be the driver that pushes Montag into his rebellion against the system. At the station there is also ‘The Hound’ an eight legged robotic killing machine which destroys pests at the station but can also be programmed to seek out humans that don’t ‘fit in’. As Montag gets more nervous regarding his safety, especially as The Hound’ starts reacting in his presence and intrigued about what may be in the books he has been systematically destroying he seeks out a man he met in a park a year ago. Faber is a retired English professor who quite rightly is initially nervous of Montag but will ultimately guide him to safety. From here the book takes a significantly more violent tone as Montag is forced to burn his own home and takes his revenge before making his televised escape.

There is a slow running subplot in the book and that is the regular mention of bombers flying high over the city at night. Is there a war on? There is no mention of it through the soporific TV channels broadcast twenty four hours a day onto wall sized screens but something is clearly building up and when it does it will be totally devastating.

This is Ray Bradbury’s first complete rather than fix-up novel and took for its inspiration five short stories he had written over the previous few years, specifically ‘The Fireman’ which was quite long at twenty five thousand words and starts the premise of books being burnt because they could lead to dissent or at least present alternate views to those in power. He had published ‘The Martian Chronicles’ three years earlier in 1950 but that was a fix-up consisting of several already published short stories with added bridging material and a minor rewrite to make them consistent. The short stories that inspired Fahrenheit 451 didn’t survive into the final novel but between them provided context for the final work. The reason for the rewrite was an approach from Ian Ballantine’s publishing company which was interested in ‘The Fireman’, which had been struggling to sell, but needed it to be fifty thousand words so it could be published as a book. At this point Bradbury realised that the other four short stories provided further structure to allow him to continue the story. It was a brave choice by Ballantines, 1953 was the peak of Senator John McCarthy’s purging of perceived anti-American activities and by now almost anyone could be accused and their works suppressed so a book about the evils of censorship was either well or really badly timed depending on your view.

There is another publishing milestone that should be mentioned here, to help get the book known parts of it were put out for magazine serialisation but nobody would touch it until a new publisher trying to launch a magazine was willing to take the risk. So in editions two, three and four of Playboy you will find extracts from Fahrenheit 451.

Oh, and for the slightly inaccurate piece on the back, clearly this is a reference to Montag’s brief chats with Clarisse at the beginning of the novel and also his chance meeting with Faber a year earlier. It is however with Clarisse that his world view starts to change, but crucially he had already started hiding books in the ventilation shaft of his home well before that as he refers to his guilty secret hidden there right after his first meeting with her. The rear cover summary implies that the book saving starts after both meetings but actually it probably started after his encounter with Faber.

Never Let Me Go – Kazou Ishiguro

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Kazou Ishiguro was born in Japan but moved with his family to England when he was just five years old, as a result most of his novels and short stories are set in England and usually in the past. This allows him to reflect on his adopted homeland from the perspective of a outsider who is also an insider; his parents never expected to stay so long in England so he grew up in a Japanese speaking household even whilst attending English schools and colleges. The Remains of the Day which takes place in a English country house in the 1940’s is probably his best known work and this book is set in the 1980’s and 1990’s so initially it felt like familiar territory. Before starting to read Never Let Me Go I knew nothing about it and made a point (as I usually do) of not reading the introduction to this Folio Society edition so I was coming to the novel with no preconceptions.

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The stark illustrations by Kate Miller set the tone of the book straight away. I now know that this is Tommy and Kathy outside the sports pavilion at Hailsham school in a scene from the first chapter, later on we would be introduced to the other main character, Ruth. The novel is in three parts; the first, and longest section, is set at the school and initially it reads like any novel at a boarding school or it least it would do if it wasn’t for the haunting opening lines of the novel that hint at something that really isn’t right but clearly central to the work.

My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years. That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year. That’ll make it almost exactly twelve years.

The second section is set at ‘the Cottages’ an old farm where a group of the students get sent after leaving Hailsham and then the final section deals with Kathy’s time as a carer. The book is written in the first person as Kathy and we follow her reminiscences through her school-days and afterwards, all the way up until we get back to this opening line.  But just what is the role of a carer? Well it will take half the novel before that truly becomes clear and it turns out that I accidentally bought three dystopian novels as part of a block purchase from the Folio Society when I though I only had two. (The Drowned World by J G Ballard, covered last month and The Last Man by Mary Shelley which will be the subject of a later blog).

I’m so glad that I hadn’t read the introduction to this edition before reading the book as it completely gives the plot away and even discusses the highly significant scene near the end of the novel. This unfortunately is a major failing of the Folio Society, their books are lovely but the introductions should really be postscripts.  This review won’t go into too much detail about the plot simply because I want any reader to come at the novel fresh as I did and discover slowly through the hints that get more specific as the book progresses just exactly what is going on and if you haven’t read the book I really do recommend it and you don’t need to get the Folio edition, it is readily available in paperback.

The school sounds like a typical English Public School (that is private for the rest of the world), although gradually you realise that year eight are actually only eight years old, so is it some sort of orphanage? Ishiguro’s master stroke in the novel is just how slowly he lets the reader into the reality of the situation, even the students don’t know what the place is really about but there are dark hints. A bit later on it becomes clear that they cannot leave the site and have virtually no contact with the outside world other than the mysterious Madame who visits occasionally and takes away their best artworks; all very odd.

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The picture above is from a scene at the Cottages, Tommy and Ruth are now a couple, with Kathy feeling like an outsider and it is by now obvious most of what is going on although why is still a significant question and this wouldn’t be fully answered until the penultimate chapter. My theory at this point was largely correct but I had anticipated the final twist as to why they are there however without doing exactly what I criticised Claire Messud for in her introduction and giving away too much this is about as far through the plot that I can go.

Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel prize for literature in 2017 with a citation  “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” and this book certainly fits that description.

The Drowned World – J G Ballard

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This week I’ve been reading one of the classic dystopian novels; and a very early book to take the theme of climate change as it was written in 1962. The edition I have was printed by the Folio Society  in 2013, bound in full buckram and beautifully illustrated by James Boswell who also created the design blocked onto the cover in reflective metallic copper and gold ink. The copper coloured endpapers continue the bright design so appropriate for a book about the burning sun beating down on a flooded planet.

J G Ballard is best known for his apocalyptic stories where the world is viewed after a catastrophe, “The Drowned World” is his second novel and is preceded by “The Wind From Nowhere” where extreme winds are destroying the Earth and followed by “The Burning World” where pollution in the oceans eventually gets to such a level that it blocks the precipitation cycle leading to no more rain and deserts everywhere. “The Drowned World” is a novel about the aftermath of runaway global warming, the ice caps have melted flooding most of the rest of the world, and humanity has largely retreated to the Arctic zones. Dr Robert Kerans and his older colleague Dr Alan Bodkin are biologists attached to a military expedition tasked with exploring the drowned cities however it has become clear over time that the charts they have produced are going to be no use as the heat is just increasing so mankind will never recolonise the majority of the planet. The temperature in flooded London is well over 40 degrees centigrade by mid morning and the afternoon heat is unbearable. Kerans and Bodkin hatch a plan to stay behind when the expedition is due to leave; along with the enigmatic Beatrice Dahl who is still living in the penthouse that belonged to her parents.

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They are all having strange dreams about the sun and a desire to head south into the increasing heat without clearly understanding why this urgent need has overtaken them. The other members of the unit are also having the same dreams and this is one of the factors that leads the commander to decide to leave sooner than originally planned.

The London that the three characters are left in when they do elude the journey north is rapidly regressing to a revitalised Triassic period with giant iguanas, huge bats and insects recolonising the swamps and flooded lagoons of what was once the squares and thoroughfares of the city. Kerans has taken to living in the top floor suite of what was once The Ritz, Bodkin scuttled the science station over the top of The Planetarium, presumably the one in Greenwich, whilst Beatrice remains in her suite and here they are planning on lasting as long as they can until the fuel and food finally runs out after when they will abandon London and head south as their dreams are calling them.

The writing style is sparse almost lethargic and matches the slowness of the characters as the heat forces the them to do less and less and just reduce their lives to sleep and short expeditions to occasionally visit each other. The washed out illustrations by James Boswell also match this sense of oppressive heat as the reader gets drawn into this world. Mankind is losing, the planet is returning to a more primitive state and it is implied that so is man.

Of course it is all going to go wrong and halfway through the book it does and a heightened level of horror is injected into the book which carries us to the inevitable denouement as the characters mental states slowly collapse. It’s a brilliant book, Ballard wasn’t really appreciated in his own lifetime although since his death in 2009 his works are becoming more and more respected but as he himself said

For a writer, death is always a career move