How to Sell a Dystopian Future

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a novel about willing censorship and the kinds of people who enforce it, allow it, try to understand it, and secretly fight against it, and what makes Fahrenheit 451 such a powerful book is that it is so terrifyingly plausible. Two aspects I try to imitate in my writing are how the characters’ speech reflects their personalities and goals, and also how Bradbury takes a familiar story (the battle against censorship) and manages to make it eerily relevant and plausible over fifty years after it is first published.

In good fiction a character’s voice can tell you much about who is speaking.  This is particularly true in Fahrenheit 451. All of the characters, from Clarisse McClellan to Guy Montag to Mildred to Captain Beatty, differ in both what they say and how they say it. This is a way Bradbury can give the reader more detail about who the characters are without resorting to long sections of narration. For instance, at the start of the novel Guy Montag is a regular fireman. He burns books when there are books to be burned, and he is happy doing it. However, once he meets Clarisse McClellan, his attitude begins to change and he starts questioning things he never thought to question before. This change in his character can be seen in his dialogue. Early on in the novel there is an exchange between Clarisse and Montag which shows his character through his speech.

“Do you ever read any of the books you burn?”

He laughed. “That’s against the law!”

and a few lines later,

“Is it true that long ago firemen put fires out instead of going to start them?”

“No. Houses have always been fireproof, take my word for it” (8). 

So from the dialogue we get that Clarisse is an inquisitive girl, who asks uncomfortable questions, and that Montag (at least at this point in the story) believes he has the answers to her silly questions.

Later on, when Captain Beatty arrives at Montag’s house when he decides to call in sick, their dialogue reveals how Montag’s thoughts are changing, and it also shows how Beatty thinks. Starting on page 57, Beatty details how it was not the government that forced censorship upon the masses, but the masses themselves that brought about the book burning world. By explaining the declining history of the books, Beatty leads Montag to wonder about the firemen’s history. Beatty is, of course, prepared for this question, and he then explains the history of the firemen and why they are needed. This entire conversation has Beatty feeding Montag information and leading him to the conclusions that Beatty wishes. From this the reader can see Beatty’s cunning nature, and also Montag’s new found curiosity, which leads him to reading the books he had been stashing for the past year.

Dystopian stories of a future with an oppressive government aren’t difficult to come by (just pick up a newspaper), but what Fahrenheit 451 does to elevate itself above the rest is to present a convincing path from the present to that future. Fahrenheit 451 does this so well that some aspects of the Montag’s lives are indistinguishable from the lives we lead today. Mildred’s constant use of headphones is a good example. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know what an iPhone is. But it is not just the minute details that Bradbury captured, but the way he explained the attitudes which led to the world of Fahrenheit 451 that is so compelling. Montag learns, both from Beatty and Faber (two sides of the same coin, you could argue) how ideas devolved from the complex stories contained within books to the harmless sound bites produced by the programs in the parlor. Bradbury presents a real starting point and uses his knowledge of society and the human mind to connect that starting point to his oppressive future. Through this idea Bradbury is able to create a convincing dystopia, and that believability allows the reader to be engrossed by Fahrenheit 451.



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