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A Dystopian Novel Reading List

In observance of President Trump’s first 100 days in office, which will be coming up soon, here are a few dystopian stories you might like to check out. A dystopia is a world where something, to use the technical term, has “gotten out of whack.” It is an unpleasant place, usually an extrapolation of what our future could look like if current trends continue. The disturbing thing about some of these stories is how many of these visions already have come true. For instance, in Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, Ray Bradbury predicts interactive television, although it is a klunky version of interactive television because he did not predict digital technology. In that same novel, Bradbury envisioned reality shows and that entertainment media would become a major focus of many people’s lives–he also predicted our fascination with large screens, except his screens weren’t 50, 60 or 70 inches–one of his screens made up the entire wall of a home, and families saved to up to turn all four of their parlor walls into TV screens.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it contains some of the most memorable dystopian visions created over the past century.

We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924): This novel was completed in 1921, only three years after the Russian Revolution. In those early days, there was still a little freedom left in the Russian literary world, but the New Order was clamping down hard. We was not published in Russia (and as far as I know it has not been published there to this day), although it was published outside of the former Soviet Union, and Zamyatin (who asked to leave Russia and, surprisingly, Stalin let him in 1929) is better known in the West than in Russia. We depicts a totalitarian society where everyone has a number, not a name, and conformity is the norm.

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1932): This one is about a 26th Century society that worships technology and conformity. The main character is Bernard Marx, an Alpha who is different from others in his caste. When Bernard returns from vacation–to a  “Savage Reservation” in New Mexico–with a savage named John, he basks in his short-lived notoriety. But the meeting of the two worlds does not work out well for either of them.

1984, by George Orwell (1949): Shortly after Trump took office, this novel shot to number 1 on the Amazon best seller list, an extraordinary feat for a novel that was first published more than 60 years ago and had long been relegated to the list of books that are assigned in English classes but that few people seek out for pleasure reading, which is understandable–a lot of unpleasant things happen in this story. It is about a world where individualism is discouraged, citizens are under continuous surveillance, and the past is rewritten to support what the government wants people to believe. 1984 originated some phrases that have come into general use, such as “Big Brother,” “doublespeak,” and “thoughtcrime.”   It is understandable that the novel is suddenly hot again; the Trump Administration seems to be using it as an instruction manual–Alternative Facts, anyone?

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953): This story is set in a future where books are illegal and firemen are called to burn books in secret libraries of a few elusive radicals (librarians, college professors, and other book lovers). Guy Montag is a fireman who used to love his job, until he succumbs to his curiosity about what’s in books. After that, the sh-t hits the fan.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (1986): This is a society in the near future, so near in fact that the narrator, Offred, remembers being taken from her husband and child and indoctrinated into her new life where her job will be as a Handmaid, whose main purpose is to bear a child for her “Commander.” Her name is Offred because her Commander’s name is Fred, and she is the handmaid Of Fred. Everyone in this new society has a specific function and must live by specific rules, even the Commanders. The Handmaid’s Tale is unusual for a dystopian novel because it has a happy, or relatively happy, ending.

The Hunger Games Trilogy, by Suzanne Collins: This trilogy consists of The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009), and Mockingjay (2010). Every year a boy and a girl from each of the 12 districts of Panem–which long ago was known as North America–is sent to a competition (think gladiators of ancient Rome) in which they are expected to fight to the death. The victor–in a society where it’s a struggle for most citizens in the Districts to put food on the table–is rewarded with a house and the promise of food for the rest of his or her life. The rules specify that there can be only one survivor, until Katniss and Peeta change the rules, which causes considerable embarrassment to the Establishment and drives the story for books two and three.

Honorable Mentions:

Animal Farm, by George Orwell (1945): Orwell, which is the pen name for English writer Eric Arthur Blair, hated totalitarianism. He made this clear in no uncertain terms in his non-fiction as well as his two most famous novels, 1984 and Animal Farm, the latter of which tells the story of a group of barnyard animals that overthrow an autocrat (the farmer), and set up an animal democracy only to have it overthrown by another autocrat, a conniving pig (a real one, not metaphorically speaking) named Snowball.

A Friend of the Family, by David Kubicek (2012): Allow me a bit of shameless self-promotion. This is on the “Honorable Mentions” list because it is a novella, not a full-length novel, and it deals with characters acting within the confines of their dystopian world rather than trying to change their screwed up society or escape from it. It is about a future society that has outlawed the practice of medicine, replacing medical doctors with Healers who rely on magic to treat patients. But not everyone in the society puts their faith in the Healers, and for those people there is a loose underground network of doctors. Hank, a doctor estranged from the underground, finds himself blackmailed into trying to help a girl’s dying father and becomes enmeshed in a power struggle for control of the family, which could expose Hank and land him in prison.

Writing a Dystopian Novel: Balancing World-Building with Character-Building

Occasionally I’ve heard science fiction writers complain that in order to create a future world or alternate reality they have to sacrifice characterization; to create a world and to create characters would take too long, be too wordy, and might bore the readers.

That is crap. It’s an excuse used by 1) lazy writers who don’t want to bother with characterization, and 2) inexperienced writers who haven’t yet learned to “show, don’t tell.”

Ray Bradbury created an unfamiliar world populated with well-defined characters in Fahrenheit 451, as did Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, as did Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games, as have many other science fiction and fantasy writers.

You don’t need to waste lots of words describing your futuristic world; a few well-chosen words will do. In one of his stories, Robert A. Heinlein has doors that operate like camera shutters; they open automatically when someone approaches them and close after the character has passed through. To communicate this concept to his readers, as his character approaches a door, Heinlein writes three words: “The door dilated.”

Similarly, don’t waste words describing your characters; show them in action. The best way to engage your readers is to create characters who are like them, characters who want the same things and who react emotionally in the same ways. This establishes an emotional bond between your characters and your readers.

To create a dystopian world, find something that may be slightly wrong in our contemporary society and exaggerate it so that it is has caused your future society to be seriously out of whack. For example, Ray Bradbury took censorship to the next level in Fahrenheit 451 when he envisioned a future in which firemen seek out illegal collections of books and burn them.

So you have characters to whom your readers can relate, and you have a society in which something is broken. Now combine the two.

Remember that, although the characters have an emotional tie to contemporary readers, their thoughts and actions must be consistent with the society in which they live. In Fahrenheit 451, for example, at the front of the characters’ minds all the time is the knowledge that possessing a book is a serious crime. They know also that speeding 100 miles per hour down the freeway and trying to hit anything that moves is a good, and accepted, form of recreation.

That’s it in a nutshell. Writing a solid dystopian story is as easy as writing a contemporary story if you follow these three guidelines:

  • Create characters of the future to whom contemporary readers can relate
  • Exaggerate a flaw in contemporary society until you’ve created a world that is seriously broken
  • The thoughts and actions of the characters must be consistent with the society in which they live

Good Luck!

The article originally appeared on BEAUTY IN RUINS on April 12, 2012

Don’t Waste Time Dwelling on Bad Reviews

It is never pleasant to get a bad review. In fact, reading a review that savagely eviscerates the novel you’ve spent months nurturing is one of the most unpleasant experiences a writer can have.

This might help: Getting a bad review often means that you have missed your audience.

Even if you haven’t thought about writing to an audience, one exists for your book. If you’re successful at finding your readers—and assuming your book is well written—most of your reviews should range from 3 to 5 stars, which is where you want to be.

But every author who has collected lots of reviews has picked up some bad ones—even the most popular books by the most popular writers.

Try this experiment. Search Amazon for your favorite books. If they have enough total reviews, I guarantee that some reviewers will rip them apart. Most of the reviews may be 3, 4 or 5 stars, but there will be the inevitable handful of readers who rate the books as forgettable, a waste of time.

The bottom line is: You can’t please everyone. This also is true of “professional” reviewers,” those folks who get paid to review books and movies.

For example, one criticism of The Hunger Games is that the novel is not original, that a screwed up future world and a reality TV show where the contestants kill each other has been done before—the novel to which it usually is compared is Stephen King’s The Running Man.

Technically, everything has been done before. A fellow named Georges Polti analyzed lots and lots of literature and concluded that every story that has ever been written or will ever be written can fit into one of 36 dramatic situations, or plots. What makes each story fresh and different is what the author brings to the telling. Although The Hunger Games and The Running Man use the same basic plot elements, they are vastly different novels.

Does any of this make you feel better about getting bad reviews? Maybe the following chart will help. I’ve listed five popular novels and the reviews they’ve gotten on Amazon (as of 4:30 p.m. Central Time on July 22, 2012):

1-star 2-star 5-star Total Reviews
11/22/63 by Stephen King 88 80 1,268 1,871
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury 96 76 787 1,505
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins 247 193 6,156 8,220
The Help by Kathryn Stockett 182 123 4,450 5,639
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain 17 19 256 455

Remember two things:

  • Don’t give much weight to ratings without reviews telling why the readers didn’t like your book.
  • Don’t give any weight to mean-spirited reviews in which readers seem more interested in attacking you and your book than in giving constructive reasons why they didn’t like it.

A review is just someone’s opinion, and as long as you’re getting mostly positive comments, don’t waste time dwelling on the bad ones.

This article was originally published April 16, 2012, as a guest post on Wise Words. I’ve updated the information in the table.

Ray Bradbury Embarks On His Last Great Adventure

Ray Bradbury once said that there are three great adventures: being born, living, and dying. Last night Bradbury embarked on that last great adventure when he died at his Los Angeles home at the age of 91.

Bradbury not only had a profound influence on my writing style, but his book The Martian Chronicles inspired me to start writing in the first place. We exchanged a few letters in the 80s and early 90s, and I found him to be an approachable and generous man.

The first time I wrote him, I sent him a copy of the college thesis I’d written about him and his early work: Ray Bradbury: Space Age Visionary. In less than a week I received a note of thanks along with galleys for a new book of criticism of his work another author was publishing.

My first inclination when I heard of Bradbury’s passing was to take time off and read some of his stories in honor of his memory. But I immediately realized that the best memorial to a man who got physically sick if he didn’t write at least two pages every day would be to write. So as soon as I post this, I’ll go back to work on my novel. I’ll read some of his stories later.

For more about Ray Bradbury’s life check out his Washington Post obituary and his video Ray Bradbury on Writing.

Ray Bradbury on Writing: Essential Advice for Aspiring Authors

As  most of you who have followed me for very long know, Ray Bradbury was my mentor. After reading a 25-cent copy of The Martian Chronicles that my mother had picked up at a thrift store, I decided to try to write like Bradbury and to get my stories published.

When I was in college I wrote a thesis about the connection of Bradbury’s early life to his stories. I called it Ray Bradbury: Space Age Visionary. Although I never published it, and the only publicly available copy I know of is in the special collections section at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Love Library, somehow Amazon got wind of it and listed it on their site.

I just came across an online video of a commencement address Bradbury gave in 2001. It’s 55 minutes long, so block out a good chunk of time to watch it. As I listened to him speak, I realized that I had followed his advice. I’d never heard him speak while I was learning to write, but while researching the man I’d turned up most of what he talked about in this commencement address.

Ray Bradbury is one of the great storytellers of our time. This video is essential for aspiring writers – for all writers. Watch it, bookmark it, and watch it again from time to time when you need inspiration: Ray Bradbury Commencement Address.

Censorship: The Dumbing Down of Society

What do the following books have in common?

  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
  • Winnie-The-Pooh by A.A. Milne
  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  • My Antonia by Willa Cather
  • A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Give up?

They are on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most banned and challenged classics. There are a few dead giveaways on that list, but others probably will surprise you (Winnie-The-Pooh? What’s that all about?). The puny sampling above does not do the list justice. Hemingway and Faulkner are on it (several times), Sinclair Lewis, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, and Stephen King. The list reads as a virtual Who’s Who of literature.

Once, in an indirect way, I had a brush with censorship. A Need To Kill (Ballantine, 1990) by Mark Pettit, published in hardcover in 1990 by Media Publishing, was the story of convicted child-killer John Joubert, who had terrorized the Omaha bedroom community of Bellevue, Nebraska, in the early 1980s.

Media had contracted with Pettit, a reporter for an Omaha TV station and the only journalist at that time to have  interviewed Joubert in prison, to write the book. When the chapters started coming in, publisher Jerry Kromberg thought they were a bit skimpy. Pettit was used to writing 30- to 60-second news reports giving just the facts. So Kromberg asked me to beef up the chapters so they could get a decent-sized book out of it. The hardcover first printing of the resulting book sold out in a few days, and Ballantine snapped up the mass market paperback rights.

A group of local folks weren’t too happy with the book. They petitioned  ShopKo to remove it from their shelves. I don’t know if ShopKo removed it. I saw a newspaper article detailing the effort, then I heard nothing, and I didn’t go to ShopKo to see if A Need To Kill was still on the shelves.

I don’t know the specific charges against A Need To Kill, but I can guess–graphic violence and some sexual content–and I’m not putting A Need To Kill on the same level as any of the books on the  ALA’s banned and challenged list.

My point is some group, somewhere is going to have a problem with almost anything that is published. One reason the Harry Potter books were challenged is that they “encourage” witchcraft. Really? The main characters have a well-defined moral compass, and they celebrate Christmas. They just happen to be able to do magic (which would be kind of cool), which they try to use responsibly. This is fiction. It exercises the imagination, stimulates brain cells, and. I hope, delays the onset of Alzheimer’s (although the verdict is still out on that last point).

One reason often used to challenge Huckleberry Finn is the frequent use of the “N” word and the depiction of  African-Americans as slaves. Huckleberry Finn was set in the 1840s when the “N” word was in common use, and African-Americans were slaves. The novel is true of our society at that time. Oh, and one other thing, Huck is not a racist; during their trip down the river, as he comes to know Jim as a human being, he rethinks commonly held ideas about the races that he’d once taken for granted.  This was a progressive position for the time when Huckleberry Finn was published in 1885.

I admit that some parents might not want their children to read certain things until they are old enough to understand them. That is the parents’ right, but it is also their responsibility to monitor books their children are reading (or TV shows they are watching or games they are playing or Websites they are visiting).

But I have a problem when others decide  my son or me or any other adult should be allowed to read. And to remove certain books from library and bookstore shelves is to make them less available for those of us who prefer to decide for ourselves.

Censorship eats away at our civilization, dumbing down our society and stifling our imagination. It has plagued our world ever since human beings first began to make chicken scratches on stone tablets (obviously I have no data for this, but I can imagine one cave dude shattering a stone tablet on another cave dude’s head because he didn’t like the fellow’s story of The Hunt). The Nazi book burnings scared the crap out of a young writer named Ray Bradbury, who visualized what our future would become if books were outlawed. The result was Bradbury’s 1953 short novel Fahrenheit 451, which to me is the ultimate condemnation of censorship.

There is, however, an upside for authors who have their books banned: readers want to  know why, so the authors often will experience a boost in sales.

I’ve rambled on for more than 800 words. Now it’s your turn. What do you think about censorship: for it, against it, don’t care?

Fahrenheit 451: A Powerful and Thought-Provoking Story

Fahrenheit 451

The 50th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451.

In 1966, Ray Bradbury wrote: “I find now, after the fact, chances are Fahrenheit 451 might be around for a few years.”

At that time the short novel, originally published in book form in 1953, had “been around” for 13 years. In 2003 it celebrated its 50th year in print, and now, in 2010, it is still as popular as ever.

Why has this story had such longevity?

Is it because Bradbury reversed a widely accepted premise–instead of putting out fires, future firemen start them? Is it because people are horrified at the idea of censorship? Is it because of the passion with which Bradbury tells his story of rogue fireman Guy Montag?

Perhaps. But I believe the main reason Fahrenheit 451 has become a classic is because of its powerful, three-dimensional, multi-layered storytelling.

On the surface, Fahrenheit 451 appears to be about a Fireman’s new-found love of books and his rebellion against burning them. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Bradbury is painting a picture of a world that has become desensitized, a recurring theme in much of Bradbury’s early work.

In Bradbury’s future, life goes on in the parlors, where the walls are giant, interactive television screens. People plug their ears with seashell radios, even while they’re asleep, and they often OD on sleeping pills in order to get to sleep. They drive more than a hundred miles per hour to have fun. They avoid thoughts of death or anything else that makes them unhappy; five minutes after a person dies, his or her body is dumped into a giant incinerator and reduced to ashes. Even in his descriptions of Montag’s wife Bradbury symbolizes the drab artificiality of the society:

“Mildred stood over his bed, curiously. He felt her there, he saw her without opening his eyes, her hair burnt by chemicals to a brittle straw, her eyes with a kind of cataract unseen but suspect far behind the pupils, the reddened pouting lips, the body as thin as a praying mantis from dieting, and her flesh like white bacon. He could remember her no other way.”

And:

“She ran past with her body stiff, her face floured with powder, her mouth gone, without lipstick.”

Bradbury also gives us a credible villain in Captain Beatty. Although Montag is a mouthpiece for the author, Beatty makes a good argument that books cause unhappiness and should be eliminated–because the focus of this society is on happiness and not on thinking too much.

But Montag suspects that people are not happy. The television walls, the driving at super high speeds–and hitting things that wander unaware into their paths–the seashell radios, and the giant flues where dead bodies are reduced to ashes in a second anesthetize them, numb their pain. If they don’t think, they can’t be unhappy. And books make them think.

Bradbury suggests through Montag and Faber–a retired English professor who, after initially being frightened to openly oppose the status quo, helps Montag with his rebellion against conformity–that only when one thinks and feels, is one truly alive; stop thinking and feeling, and you become a zombie.

Although for the most part the technology is a bit dated–Bradbury missed the Internet entirely, and communications are still snail-mailed–his prediction that television would play a major role in the mind-numbing of future generations appears to have been right on. That was a pretty astute speculation for 1950 (when Bradbury wrote his original novella, The Fireman, which was published in Galaxy Science Fiction) when many folks did not realize the powerful force that television would become.

I would have to agree with Bradbury’s other prediction in 1966; I think Fahrenheit 451 will be around for a few more years. Although it gets a little preachy at times, is a powerful story and encourages us to think. I highly recommend it.

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