I’ve just had an experience on File770 where a number of people came out very strongly in favor of suppression of ideas, and I’m feeling the need to write something about it. This shouldn’t reflect on the magazine, or on Mike Glyer, who provides an excellent venue. He’s not responsible for the views of his readers.

The initial question was whether David Riley, who had reportedly expressed racist views, should be allowed to serve on the HWA awards panel, but the discussion soon devolved into a fight about whether some ideas should be suppressed for moral reasons. For people of a certain age, this echoes an era when leftists were accused and persecuted as traitors with little or no evidence. It meant that you had to be really careful what you said or wrote, or you could end up “blacklisted” and unable to work, if not in prison. In response, I’d like to review Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

Guy Montag is a “fireman” on a squad that burns books. These are sniffed out by electronic “hounds” operated by a totalitarian government. Where people have hidden books in their homes, the entire house is burned down. Montag is on assignment to burn a woman’s home. She is defiant and self immolates, burning up with her books. Wondering at her attitude, Montag steals a book. He returns home to his wife and finds that Clarisse, a young neighbor with free-ranging ideas, has disappeared.

Montag is disturbed and tries to discuss the woman’s death with his wife, but she gets angry, thinking his subversive ideas will cause him to lose his job. Mildred insists the woman was to blame for the whole thing because she was hiding books. At work the next day, Montag’s boss tells him that most firemen steal books from time to time, but that they need to be promptly destroyed. Over the next few months, Montag accumulates a stash of stolen books and comes to realize that he knows nothing about what the government is doing, as there are no newspapers and nothing on the media but entertainment. There are signs of a war looming—he sees formations of jets in the sky. One day a fire alarm comes in, and when the squad responds, Montag finds it is his house they are set to burn. His wife has turned him in.

Montag does his duty, burning the house, but then he turns the flamethrower on his boss, burning him up. Montag is attacked by a sniffer hound, but manages to escape. He flees into the countryside, looking for others who have fled, and finds a band led by a man named Granger. As they watch, the city is destroyed by a nuclear bomb, everyone burning up in the conflagration. Granger explains that history is full of repeated falls of civilization, and that it is their job to help rebuild.

The book was published in 1953. Groff Conklin, reviewing for Galaxy, called the novel “among the great works of the imagination.” P. Schuyler Miller, reviewing for Astounding Science Fiction, called it one of Bradbury’s “hysterical diatribes.” Bradbury had previously investigated these ideas in short stories and wrote the novel in 18 days on a rented typewriter. Ironically, Fahrenheit 451 is often found on banned book lists, and words like “abortion” or cursing are redacted when it is used in high school lit classes.

See the next blog for more oomments on the issue.