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Book Review: Fahrenheit 451

Book Name: Fahrenheit 451
Author: Ray Bradbury
First Published: 1953

Ray Bradbury was an American fantasy, science fiction, and mystery fiction writer. He was known for his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 and for the science fiction and horror stories gathered together in The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. Many of Bradbury’s works have been adapted into television and films and he has left his stamp on the science fiction and fantasy genres as one of the masters other authors set their own standards by.

Bradbury was born in the mid-west, but his family moved back and forth between Waukegan, Illinios and Tucson, Arizona for most of his formative years. When Bradbury was fourteen, his family settled in Los Angeles, California and he remained in the Southern California area for much of his life. Bradbury was a reader and writer throughout his youth. He claimed that he was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs and his John Carter of Mars series and even wrote a fanfiction based on those tales at the age of twelve. However, he cited H.G. Wells and Jules Verne as his biggest science fiction influences, followed by Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon, and A. E. van Vogt. As Bradbury matured, he drew more from the style and works of Alexander Pope and poet John Donne. When later asked about the lyrical nature of his prose, Bradbury replied that it came, “From reading so much poetry every day of my life. My favorite writers have been those who’ve said things well.” He also has said, “If you’re reluctant to weep, you won’t live a full and complete life.”

Bradbury did not go to college and instead took a job selling newspapers once he graduated from high school. He said of this time, “Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.” In fact, Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 at the UCLA’s Powell Library where he rented a typewriter in one of their study rooms. The rental rate for completing the entire novel was around $9.80 since the rental of the manual typewriter was ten cents per half hour.

Ray Bradbury lived at home until the age of twenty-seven when he married his sweetheart, Marguerite McClure. They had four children together. He was an active member of Los Angeles Science Fiction Society where he made his first connections in the writing community of Los Angeles. From these connections, he began to meet publishers and gained a following for his work that now spans the globe. Bradbury is credited with writing 27 novels and over 600 short stories. More than eight million copies of his works, published in over 36 languages, have been sold around the world.

In his later years, Ray Bradbury became a well sought out speaker at literary events in the Southern California area. He never obtained a driver’s license and did not enjoy travel. It was well known on the speaker circuit, if you wanted Ray Bradbury to speak at your event, you had best arrange to have a driver come and get him. I regret that I did not take the opportunity to meet Mr. Bradbury in person before he passed away in December of 2011. He was a favorite on the literary speaker’s circuit in Southern California and I personally know many writers that consider him to be an inspiration and mentor, in fact, my own writing society meets in a public library room dedicated to his name. Mr. Bradbury’s burial place is in Los Angeles with a headstone that reads “Author of Fahrenheit 451”. This one novel was his favorite and the one that he was likely the most proud of.

Fahrenheit 451 is a novel that has many layers. On the surface, it is the story of Guy Montag. He is a fireman, but instead of putting out fires, his job is to seek out books, which are forbidden due to his society’s views as their being the source of all unhappiness and discord, and burn them to cinders. One day on the job, he picks up a book and instead of burning it, it reads it. His life is transformed. Now, instead of being a normal part of his society, he is a dissent who wishes to protect and preserve these ideas and words from the past until a new generation may come to pass that will appreciate these pearls of wisdom hidden in books. He discovers a group of people that have memorized the books of the ages and repeat them orally in order to preserve the words in a way that their society can not destroy.

However, is this really what this classic novel is all about? Is it all censorship and book burning? Bradbury predicted a future where people wore radios that plugged their ears to the world around them so that they would focus on the world of media only. A concept that is a precursor to iPods and smartphones where the world of social media becomes as important to us as the physical world outside. In the novel, walls of televisions soothed the souls of people that only wanted to be happy and not look too closely at what was happening around them. They did not think for themselves, but rather based their views on what was fed to them by their media. With our giant HD television sets and giant computer monitors, it could be a mirror of how people perceive the world of today. The burning of books by Fireman Montag almost seems a throw away plot to the theme that is placed under the fast paced action of this story.

Bradbury always claimed that this was not a book about censorship, which the burning of books suggests, but rather a social commentary about what happens when society presses in and takes away individual freedom and thought. In the world of Guy Montag books were ultimately banned because they made people feel “bad” or insulted some minority group. Individual expression or original thinking was not encouraged. I sometimes can see in my mind Ray Bradbury typing away at the public library as he writes this book. He was a child who could not afford to go to college, to be molded by society. He was an independent thinker who took his views from the tomes that surrounded him in his library setting. I can understand his love of books and the value of treasuring what went on in the past in the way that it was preserved by previous generations and taking from it ideas to change our own futures. To allow the quiet of a book speak to you in ways that social media can not.

Fahenheit 451 Book CoverFahrenheit 451 is not in the public domain, so you will need to purchase it at your local bookstore or online. It is frequently found at your local library to borrow for free. When the publishing rights for Fahrenheit 451 came up for renewal in December 2011, just before Bradbury’s death, he allowed that the work could be published as an ebook provided that the publisher, Simon & Schuster, would allow the novel to be digitally downloaded by any library patron. The title remains the only book in the Simon & Schuster catalog where this is possible.

Book Review: Earthman’s Burden

Book Name: Earthman’s Burden
Author: Poul Anderson and Gordon R. Dickson
First Published: 1957

Poul Anderson is known for his larger than life adventure stories of political satire and in the direct and inextricable connection between human liberty and expansion into space. A great supporter of the space program, Anderson’s science fiction stories took great care in using provable science in its objects and settings, the only exception being the use of the theory of faster than light travel. Gaining his baccalaureate degree with honors in physics, Anderson made no real attempt to work in that field. Instead, he published his first story while still an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, and then began his career as a free-lance writer after his college graduation in 1948. In 1953, Anderson married Karen Kruse and left Minnosota with her to live in the San Francisco Bay area. Their daughter, Astrid, was born soon after the move. They made their home in Orinda, California, near Berkeley. After Poul’s death, his wife donated his typewriter and desk to the local bookstore in Berkley, where the author had given readings over the years.

Gordon R. Dickson was born in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1923. After the death of his father, he moved with his mother to Minneapolis, Minnesota. He served in the United States Army, from 1943 to 1946, and received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Minnesota, in 1948. From 1948 through 1950 he attended the University of Minnesota for graduate work. It is at the University where he met his fellow anthology collaborator, Poul Anderson.

At the start of Earthman’s Burden, Ensign Alexander Braithwaite Jones crash lands on a planet 500 light years from earth. He is rescued by a cuddly race of aliens that resemble over-sized teddybears. The Hokas have the ability to absorb any trace of Earth culture they encounter and reproduce it with devastatingly unpredictable and hilarious results. You’ll see the wild wild west, an Italian style opera featuring a teddybear Don Giovanni, an atmospheric Victorian England featuring a Hoka Sherlock Holmes, a science fiction space patrol featuring a Scottish accented Hoka space engineer, pirates and French legionnaires.

Underscoring the fun, is a witty satire about the burden to raise up these “primitive” aliens so that they can join the space federation as full citizens. Jones, the appointed ambassador plenipotentiary to Toka, begins to understand the complexity of his aliens charges and that they are not the silly innocents that they appear on the surface. It is a direct commentary on the concept that the English poet Rudyard Kipling wrote about in his poem The White Man’s Burden that he wrote for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and defined the English idea of imperialism that was commonplace during the 19th century.

I first encountered this novel in my early twenties when I was looking for a light summer read at the bookstore. With teddybear aliens on the cover, I did not expect anything of substance. Inside the book I discovered a world with more depth than I expected and a satire that made me think about I viewed the world and my place in it. Over the years, the novel tends to come up in conversation, especially among vintage science fiction buffs such as myself. It is a novel well worth reading and adding to your collection. It will delight you with humor and leave you feeling uplifted. My favorite story is the first one about the sheriff of canyon gulch.

Stories included in the anthology:

    “The Sheriff of Canyon Gulch”
    “Don Jones”
    “In Hoka Signo Vinces”
    “The Adventure of the Misplaced Hound”
    “Yo Ho Hoka!”
    “The Tiddlywink Warriors”

Earthman's Burden Book CoverEarthman’s Burden is not available as an ebook, but you can still find copies for sale on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and at your local used book stores.