x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Feeling the heat

Postwar writers who predicted a dystopian future, such as George Orwell and Ray Bradbury, were not all right. But they were not all wrong, either.

This week saw two milestones in the oeuvre of dystopian science-fiction: the death of Ray Bradbury and the 63rd anniversary of the publication of George Orwell's 1984. Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, and the Orwell book are often studied together. Both men wrote at a time when the world was emerging from a war ended by an unimaginably fearsome weapon and prospects for the future seemed uncertain at best. The worst has not come to pass, but the books' enduring popularity and their countless adaptations underscore the fact that they continue to speak to us.

As futurologists, Bradbury and Orwell were both impressively prescient. Big Brother's surveillance cameras from 1984 are almost everywhere these days (albeit not yet in our homes), and Bradbury's mind-numbing "parlour walls" have been replicated as huge flat-screen televisions.

While there are dangerous signs in some parts of the world, the routine rewriting of history at the centre of the Orwell novel has not occurred nor has the widespread burning of books, which is the premise of Fahrenheit 451 (that being the temperature at which paper auto-ignites).

But, as Bradbury famously said, "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them." On that front Bradbury was also spot on: young people are reading fewer books today than ever before. Luckily for culture, e-readers have a higher kindling point than paper.