Novel Impacts

Ray Bradbury grew up with books. He began his own writing career at the age of 11. He was a frequent visitor to libraries wherever his family lived. When Ray had just finished high school, he met Robert Heinlein, known as the dean of science fiction writers. This meeting was a critical moment in Ray’s life. As Ray reflected on Heinlein’s influence, he described how Heinlein advised him to be human in his writing. Ray’s novels often combined science fiction with subjects of societal importance.

Ray was impacted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) under the direction of Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy’s hearing focused on alleged Communists in the arts (especially cinema). Ray was outraged by the attacks on creative artists. Ray conceived a novel which would project the consequences of McCarthy’s attacks on the arts. The novel was Fahrenheit 451.

Fahrenheit 451 evolved out of a series about book burning, police harassment, censorship, and authoritarian government. The title comes from the temperature at which paper burns. Ray’s publishers encouraged him to use the stories as the basis for a book. He subsequently wrote Fahrenheit 451 in nine days. The novel tells of a time when books were outlawed and burned by firemen. The main character is a fireman who gradually realized what was doing and fights against the burning of books.

Ray described his role as an author as “a preventer of future, not a predictor of them.” Fahrenheit 451 was a warning against totalitarianism and its threat to democracy. While his main theme was government imposed censorship, the publication of the book at the time of the McCarthy hearings was a wakeup call for where the U.S. democracy could be heading.

Novels have an expanding influence in that they are often transferred to movies, theatre, TV, etc. Fahrenheit 451 continues its influence. In addition to the above adaptations of the book, it has been adopted as a computer game, radio broadcast, and graphic novel.

In democracies, freedom of speech is essential and censorship of speech is often the initial threat against democracy. Novels such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World have given us phrases such as Big Brother and Thought Police, which are still widely used as cautions.

Just imagine the expanding influence of novels in the protection of democracies. Censorship is rarely successful and internet technology makes the written word even more powerful (for good or bad)? Just imagine how the themes of novels written decades ago (or longer) can still be relevant today? Just imagine how a novel can impact the preservation of democratic ideals with characters and plots which make these ideals understandable to all of us?

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“How long is it since you were really bothered? About something, about something real?”– Ray Bradbury

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