My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Philip K. Dick in “Second Variety” and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? foretold the future of technological advances decades before the technology even existed.
Ray Bradbury in his infamous novel Fahrenheit 451 has augured a prophecy.
Fahrenheit 451 first appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction under the title “The Fireman” in 1950 and was later turned into a novel three years later.
Bradbury’s novel extrapolates on a futuristic society governed by the senses rather than the intellect and firemen who usually stop fires are instead used to censor society by burning books. Fahrenheit 451 eerily predicts the actions of the Communist, now Socialist, government in Vietnam when the Vietnam War concluded on April 30, 1975 with an American defeat and a united Vietnam under a new form of government.
A colleague of mine, one for protection we shall call Nga Smith, was a Vietnamese college graduate planning to leave Saigon in 1975 for an American scholarship for a masters degree when the war ended abruptly, ending her hopes of a higher education as well. Mrs. Smith, currently an English teacher, told me in an interview once that the Vietnamese government posted flyers and notifications all over Saigon, now named Ho Chi Minh City, and each house was searched for intellectual paraphernalia. One night a knock came at her parent’s door. The police came in and collected all her books and went to burn them, much like Bradbury predicted in his novel Fahrenheit 451.
Bradbury begins his novel with the intense, searing line: “it was a pleasure to burn” (3).
And for Vietnam over the next few decades knowledge was suppressed and censorship heavily enforced.
Montag, a fireman in the novel, finally awakes from his censor-induced stupor and admits, “‘I don’t know anything anymore’” (Bradbury 18).
So fell Mrs. Smith and all of Vietnam into a new Dark Age. After the war, “all television, radio, and telephone systems; filmmaking; and Internet service providers in Vietnam are owned and operate by state agencies” and other forms of print media, such as newspapers, “are owned and operated by government ministries, the Communist Party, and official organizations” (Luong 37).
By removing books and knowledge from the hands of the people, the government was able to erase the responsibility of education and self-government. Vietnamese citizens simply had to do what they were told.
Captain Beatty, in Fahrenheit 451, imagines how fire is much like censorship, both eradicated knowledge: “‘It’s perpetual motion…. What is fire? It’s a mystery… Its real beauty is that it destroys responsibility and consequences’” (Bradbury 115). Much is the same in the old ways of Vietnam’s politics.
In Postwar Vietnam, it specifically states:
Compared to the rules regarding housing, traffic, and residency requirements, which people in many parts of the country often ignore with near impunity, rules against unauthorized outlets of media are rarely breached and when they are, the law enforcement agencies respond quickly to stop the infraction and often punish the violators (Luong 37).
Much of this representation of postwar Vietnam can be found in Bradbury’s novel. Citizens may live as they please without fear, and they can continually commit suicide with the least bit of interference from the law. Montag’s wife almost dies and is saved when an emergency team pumps out her stomach and cleans her blood, with them casually handling the case because they get “nine or ten cases a night” (Bradbury 15).
A person’s life is not granted much respect. However, a person’s mind is prodigiously feared. In the novel, as well as postwar Vietnam, if someone published something without permission then punishment followed.
Nonetheless, Montag, as well as Vietnam, began to notice the need and desire for knowledge, which is directly associated with growth. Montag confesses to himself, “‘I’m going to do something… I don’t even know what yet, but I’m going to do something big’” (65). And from that point forward, by gradually accepting the fate of the intellect rather than suppressing it through force and censorship, the world opens up and begins to change.
Modern Vietnam is drastically different than postwar Vietnam for one main reason and that is because censorship laws have been all but vanquished. There are laws in place to protect the image of the government and the people, but the newspapers have, on several occasions since my arrival to Vietnam several years ago, posted critical stories on state owned companies, and which is causing the system to become more privatized in an effort of producing more efficiency. Books are rarely ever burned, but rather cherished.
Anything in print is often copied at any one of the ubiquitous copy shops for a very cheap price. Books are delivered to my door from Amazon.com without interference. Rumors in America are that Vietnam continues to censor and ban Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell and Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury. This is false and narrow-mindedness.
I personally purchased in the recent year a mint copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four in a Vietnamese book store and ordered Fahrenheit 451 over the internet. The truth is: Vietnam, like Montag, has seen the necessity for knowledge. In Fahrenheit 451, Faber, an old English professor, exemplifies this state of mind of modern Vietnam and self-aware Montag: “‘The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us’” (83).
The “magic” is in the knowledge books provide to the reader and all the emotions stored up in words on a page. But as Vietnam stands on this new Age of Enlightenment there remains some hesitancy, much as Montag expressed towards the end of his journey away from society and into the wilderness, where true knowledge always resides in experience: “He was moving from an unreality that was frightening into a reality that was unreal because it was new” (Bradbury 140).
Globalization and the World Wide Web are making Bradbury’s future in Fahrenheit 451 less and less a reality. However, for his generation, his novel was a precursor to what would take place in Southeast Asia some twenty years in the future.
Montag, like Vietnam, learns from the mistakes of censorship and evolve into a stronger entity, one willing to see past all the hypocrisy and desire for a better future for all men in all places and in all times, just as the sun burns each day, burning Time, changing Time for each generation it shines for and offering up a more beautiful future of literacy (Bradbury 141).
Bradbury, Ray. (1953) Fahrenheit 451. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991. Print.
Luong, Hy V., ed. Postwar Vietnam: Dynamics of a Transforming Society. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003. Print.
Smith, Nga. Personal Interview. May 2010.
CG FEWSTON was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong. He’s been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy).
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son, The New America: A Collection, Vanity of Vanities, A Time to Love in Tehran, and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 275,000+ followers