The Power of Cautionary Questions: Neil Gaiman on Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ Why We Read, and How Speculative Storytelling Enlarges Our Humanity
By Maria Popova
“The important thing,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in contemplating the cultural role of speculative fiction and the task of its writer, “is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live.” In doing so, she argued, imaginative storytelling can intercept the inertia of oppressive institutions, perilous social mores, and other stagnations of progress that contract our scope of the possible.
Hardly any work of imaginative storytelling has stood as more enduring and full-bodied a testament to this ideal than Ray Bradbury’s 1953 masterwork Fahrenheit 451 — a love letter to books and to the people who care about them and, perhaps above all, to the very capacity for caring. This capacity was the animating force of Bradbury’s uncommon genius, and it finds a contemporary counterpart and kindred spirit in Neil Gaiman — a writer of firm conviction and porous curiosity, an idealist amid our morass of cynicism, writing to remind us over and over again who we are and who we can be if we commit to wresting goodness out of our imperfect humanity.
The abiding splendor and significance of the ideas and ideals at the heart of Bradbury’s classic is what Gaiman explores in a beautiful piece titled “Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, and What Science Fiction Is and Does,” originally written as an introduction to a sixtieth-anniversary edition of the book and now included in his altogether magnificent The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction (public library) — a collection of Gaiman’s essays, speeches, reviews, and various meditations on life, literature, and the life and love of literature.
Gaiman begins at the beginning — the elemental impulse to imagine, to record these imaginings, and to share them with others:
Sometimes writers write about a world that does not yet exist. We do it for a hundred reasons. (Because it’s good to look forward, not back. Because we need to illuminate a path we hope or we fear humanity will take. Because the world of the future seems more enticing or more interesting than the world of today. Because we need to warn you. To encourage. To examine. To imagine.) The reasons for writing about the day after tomorrow, and all the tomorrows that follow it, are as many and as varied as the people writing.
With an eye to the Bradbury classic’s cultural role as “a book of warning” and “a reminder that what we have is valuable, and that sometimes we take what we value for granted,” Gaiman offers a taxonomy of the three types of speculative questions that frame our scope of alternative possibilities:
There are three phrases that make possible the world of writing about the world of not-yet (you can call it science fiction or speculative fiction; you can call it anything you wish) and they are simple phrases:
What if … ?
If only …
If this goes on …
“What if … ?” gives us change, a departure from our lives. (What if aliens landed tomorrow and gave us everything we wanted, but at a price?)
“If only …” lets us explore the glories and dangers of tomorrow. (If only dogs could talk. If only I was invisible.)
“If this goes on…” is the most predictive of the three, although it doesn’t try to predict an actual future with all its messy confusion. Instead, “If this goes on…” fiction takes an element of life today, something clear and obvious and normally something troubling, and asks what would happen if that thing, that one thing, became bigger, became all-pervasive, changed the way we thought and behaved. (If this goes on, all communication everywhere will be through text messages or computers, and direct speech between two people, without a machine, will be outlawed.)
It’s a cautionary question, and it lets us explore cautionary worlds.
Therein, Gaiman argues, lies the greatest gift of the book — in raising cautionary questions about the present and its alternatives, rather than in predicting the future. He considers this broader role of all speculative fiction:
People think, wrongly, that speculative fiction is about predicting the future, but it isn’t — or if it is, it tends to do a rotten job of it. Futures are huge things that come with many elements and a billion variables, and the human race has a habit of listening to predictions for what the future will bring and then doing something quite different.
What speculative fiction is really good at is not the future, but the present. Taking an aspect of it that troubles or is dangerous, and extending and extrapolating that aspect into something that allows the people of that time to see what they are doing from a different angle and from a different place.
This offering of alternative perspectives is as nourishing to culture as the difficult but necessary practice of alternative interpretations is to our inner lives and our psychological stability — lest we forget, our perilous pathology of self-criticism arises from an incapacity for such multiplicity of interpretation and it enslaves us in the same way that our cultural blinders do. Speculative fiction, Gaiman argues, grants us a liberation of vision — but only so long as we honor its most essential characteristic: the multiplicity of meanings to any one story. Half a century after Susan Sontag’s admonition against the tyranny of interpretation, he cautions:
If someone tells you what a story is about, they are probably right.
If they tell you that that is all the story is about, they are very definitely wrong.
Any story is about a host of things. It is about the author; it is about the world the author sees and deals with and lives in; it is about the words chosen and the way those words are deployed; it is about the story itself and what happens in the story; it is about the people in the story; it is polemic; it is opinion.
An author’s opinions of what a story is about are always valid and are always true: the author was there, after all, when the book was written. She came up with each word and knows why she used that word instead of another. But an author is a creature of her time, and even she cannot see everything that her book is about.
Bradbury was only thirty-two when he began writing the short story that became Fahrenheit 451 and he wrote it on a rental typewriter in a university basement library. It was of its time — a time when the chills of the Cold War had just been stoked and the golden era of consumerism was gathering momentum and television was coming of age as a mass medium — but it is also, in its central cautionary question, timeless.
Gaiman considers that question:
“If this goes on …” thought Ray Bradbury, “nobody will read books anymore,” and the book began.
“What if … firemen burned down houses instead of saving them?” Bradbury thought, and now he had his way in to the story. He had a fireman named Guy Montag, who saved a book from the flames instead of burning it.
“If only … books could be saved,” he thought. If you destroy all the physical books, how can you still save them?
He called the Los Angeles fire department and asked them at what temperature paper burned. Fahrenheit 451, somebody told him. He had his title. It didn’t matter if it was true or not.
The book was published and acclaimed. People loved the book, and they argued about it. It was a novel about censorship, they said, about mind control, about humanity. About government control of our lives. About books.
But the aboutness of the book, like the aboutness of any book, Gaiman reminds us, is porous and responsive and in constant dynamic interaction with the context of its time, its place, and the locus of circumstances in the reader’s life at the particular moment of reading it.
In a testament to Susan Sontag’s case for rereading as rebirth, Gaiman recounts the evolution of the Bradbury classic along the axis of his own life:
I read Fahrenheit 451 as a boy: I did not understand Guy Montag, did not understand why he did what he did, but I understood the love of books that drove him. Books were the most important things in my life. The huge wall-screen televisions were as futuristic and implausible as the idea that people on the television would talk to me, that I could take part, if I had a script. It was never a favorite book: it was too dark, too bleak for that. But when I read a story called “Usher II” in The Silver Locusts (the UK title for The Martian Chronicles), I recognized the world of outlawed authors and imagination with a fierce sort of familiar joy.
When I reread it as a teenager, Fahrenheit 451 had become a book about independence, about thinking for yourself. It was about treasuring books and the dissent inside the covers of books. It was about how we as humans begin by burning books and end by burning people.
Rereading it as an adult I find myself marveling at the book once more. It is all of those things, yes, but it is also a period piece… A young reader, finding this book today, or the day after tomorrow, is going to have to imagine first a past, and then a future that belongs to that past.
But still, the heart of the book remains untouched, and the questions Bradbury raises remain as valid and important.
The most central of these question is also the most abiding: Why do we need books at all? It’s a question to which some of humanity’s most luminous minds have provided spirited answers over the millennia. For Galileo, books were a way of having superhuman powers; for Kafka, “the axe for the frozen sea within us”; for Carl Sagan, “proof that humans are capable of working magic”; for James Baldwin, a way to change our destiny; for Rebecca Solnit, the planting of seeds from which enormous possibility can blossom; for Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska, our ultimate frontier of freedom. “Reading,” E.B. White wrote as he peered into the future of reading shortly before Bradbury wrote his masterpiece, “is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy.” Bradbury himself considered reading the key to democracy.
Gaiman contributes his own answer, straddling the political and the poetic:
Why do we need the things in books? The poems, the essays, the stories? Authors disagree. Authors are human and fallible and foolish. Stories are lies after all, tales of people who never existed and the things that never actually happened to them. Why should we read them? Why should we care?
The teller and the tale are very different. We must not forget that.
Ideas, written ideas, are special. They are the way we transmit our stories and our ideas from one generation to the next. If we lose them, we lose our shared history. We lose much of what makes us human. And fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gift of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.
In another short piece from the book, titled “Credo,” Gaiman builds on this foundational truth:
I believe that it is difficult to kill an idea because ideas are invisible and contagious, and they move fast.
I believe that you can set your own ideas against ideas you dislike. That you should be free to argue, explain, clarify, debate, offend, insult, rage, mock, sing, dramatize, and deny.
I do not believe that burning, murdering, exploding people, smashing their heads with rocks (to let the bad ideas out), drowning them or even defeating them will work to contain ideas you do not like. Ideas spring up where you do not expect them, like weeds, and are as difficult to control.
I believe that repressing ideas spreads ideas.
The View from the Cheap Seats is a tremendous read in its totality — an electrifying packet of that “fierce sort of familiar joy” full of Gaiman’s beautifully articulated beliefs about such centralities of the human experience as art, gender, fear, and community, alongside his reflections on and homages to friends, heroes, and kindred spirits like Terry Pratchett, Charles Vess, Douglas Adams, and Tori Amos.
Even the book’s dedication to Gaiman’s newborn son radiates his genial genius:
For Ash, who is new, for when he is grown.
These were some of the things your father loved and said and cared about and believed, a long time ago.
Complement this particular portion with Bradbury on the importance of love in creative work and the secret of a fulfilling vocation, then revisit Gaiman on how stories last, the psychological pillars of the creative life, why fairy tales captivate us, his eight rules of writing, and his advice to aspiring writers.
Published May 31, 2016