Throughout time Science Fiction writers have produced their work, using the concept of dystopia as a method to express their outlook and opinion on the issues within their existing societies, in which they are writing from. The writer delivers a message to the audience, educating them about the current contextual concerns and the possibility of the dystopias that are developed as a result. This is demonstrated in the novel Fahrenheit 451, written by Ray Bradbury and the film Gattaca, directed by Andrew Niccol.
Both of these composers illustrate their fears for the fate of their society through the structural and language features of their texts. Ray Bradbury explores the value of using knowledge and independent thinking rather than blindly following the ‘rules’, without a second thought or question. Andrew Niccol uses the reality of scientific methods, addressing the responder of the direction society is heading in and the fatal result of the future if we were to mess with the balance of nature. Like all texts, Fahrenheit 451 is a product of its time.
It was published in the early 1950s, during a time recovering from World War II and facing the Cold War, which caused key contextual concerns of this period. During the McCarthy era, the rise of the mass media contributed to the themes and ideas explored by Bradbury’s dystopian fiction novel. These ideas include the danger of censorship, knowledge vs. ignorance and the role of technology which are explored in a world where people are so busy that they do not stop to think or notice beauty or to really communicate with the people around them.
This is a world where the media feeds the minds of numbed masses whose highest goal is happiness; a goal that persistently eludes them. Although Gattaca was created many years afterwards, Andrew Niccol’s futuristic film also explores the contextual concerns within his present society; the twenty-first century. Niccol looks at the role of science and technology and the concerns that can come from being too dependent upon these. Gattaca provides us with a dystopic vision of the not-too-distant future if we are to continue to strive for perfection.
He challenges our concept on what it is to be an individual human being and what extent we are willing to go to before our morals and ethics are forgotten. This is shown in the film through ideas such as destiny vs. free will, systematic discrimination and the role of nature and technology. A key concern that Bradbury has about the future that is directly related to context is the danger of censorship. The Nazi book burnings in Germany in 1933 had been widely publicised after World War II. These book burnings became a major symbol of the repression that followed in Nazi Germany.
The importance of literature and the freedom to read and write was a central concern of liberal-minded people during the 1950s, and this thought was common to Bradbury. In Fahrenheit 451, society has evolved to such and extreme that literature is illegal to possess. No longer can books be read, not only because they might offend someone, but because books raise questions that often lead to revolutions and even anarchy. A major example of censorship is book burning, which with Bradbury’s use of symbolism reinforces the ideas of anti-censorship.
Fire is used symbolically to identify the issues of censorship and represents the destruction of books, people and society. Censorship in the world consists of book burning, manipulative parlor families, and the intolerance of those who attempt to be an individual. Bradbury’s use of symbolism reinforces the ideas of anti-censorship. Fire is used symbol of censorship as it represents the destruction of books, of people, and of society, however is used to cover up all things that the firemen’s propaganda does not enforce.
The first sentence of the novel introduces the role of fire saying “It was a pleasure to burn. It was a pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed”. Obviously fire is a symbol of destruction, but in this quote fire has multiple functions; it destroys the book in one sense, but in another it changes the book and even creates something new. Captain Beatty wants to use fire to cleanse the world of knowledge, a thing that he believes is evil. He wants to use fire to erase people’s memories and problems. He believes that fire can destroy anything and make problems disappear.
When he explains that cremation is important to make people forget the dead, he says that they should “Forget them. Burn all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean”. He thinks that the only way to have a peacefully and happy society is to make people forget the past and ignore or forget anything that they do not like. This reflects back to the society after WWII and the motives of the Nazis – removing thoughts and the past will result in peace and happiness. Bradbury also serves to warn us of the danger of ignorance in this futuristic dystopia.
This again is reflective of the Nazi book burnings and the idea of people leaving behind knowledge and becoming ‘blissfully’ ignorant of the past. In Fahrenheit 451 the fireman’s responsibility is to destroy knowledge and promote ignorance in order to ensure equality. Ignorance, however, promotes suicide, poor decisions, and empty lives. When Beatty discovers Montag’s hidden collection of books, he explains that all firemen become curious of books, and may have time to explore them for a short time before disposing of them.
He then tells Montag about the state of the world: people are made content by their lack of knowledge. Those who truly know the world are unhappy, while those who are ignorant of it have a false sense of happiness. From this moment, Montag is given the choice of conforming and living an artificial but happy life, or seeking knowledge and bearing the pain that accompanies it. In the novel, when Captain Beatty mentions the history of fire fighting and the history of books.
He says, “Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten-or-twelve-line dictionary resume. ” The use of a hyperbole in this quote exaggerates to make a point of how really short they are to him or compared to what they used to be, displaying the ignorance towards knowledge and the past. Losing touch with nature and becoming reliant on technology is a concern that Bradbury forces us to examine in Fahrenheit 451.
Bradbury uses personification to demonstrate this idea, describing technological equipment as animals and giving them human characteristics. “The Mechanical Hound slept but did not sleep, lived but did not live in its gently humming, gently vibrating, softly illuminated kennel back in a dark corner of the firehouse. ” This quote is a pure example of personification, where the mechanical hound, a mere machine, is described as having a personality and behaviours similar to that of a human being. Also, this quote can be expressed as an irony to the people in the society.
Another example of the being too reliant on technology is the palor walls and the people of Fahrenheit 451 spend most of their time consumed by the information they are being fed, losing touch with the outside world, or nature and becoming completely dependent on technology. Using personification once again, Bradbury defines the machine used to ‘clean out’ his wife, Mildred as a “black cobra down an echoing well looking for all the old water and the old time gathered there”, once again refer to a machine as an animal. The way he writes “This machine pumped all of the blood from the body and replaced it with fresh blood and serum,” indirectly xplains the emptiness of the people’s souls in the society. This machine is pumping Mildred’s blood and we can say that Mildred is the ‘representative’ of the society. In this line, it states that the machine can just replace the blood with new one, meaning that there’s nothing precious in Mildred’s soul. Her life is just full of nothingness, nothing to hide and nothing to lose. Technology has stripped society of its personality and identity. Niccol too explores the role of nature and technology in the futuristic dystopia he has created in Gattaca.
He forces the responder to question the dangers of uncontrolled technology. In the ‘not-to-distant future’, the world of Gattaca is where genetic engineering has become the normal approach to procreation. Overall the setting of the film is quite severe and uncluttered and is dominated by people and symbolic locations. This sterile and cold society of elitist collaborations like Gattaca promotes competition, isolation and discrimination. This is something that is dangerous to individuals and relationships and shows an arrogant belief to the world of science.
The film begins with the quote “Consider Gods handwork: who can straighten what he has made crooked” from Ecclesiastes 7:13, followed by the quote “I not only think that we will tamper with Mother Nature, I think Mother Nature wants us to” from Willard, then cuts to extreme close ups of Vincent exfoliating, removing fingernails, hair, skin fragments and eyelashes. Niccol very intricately places the two quotes one after the other to force the responder to think about what being human truly is and how far is it before we’re ‘playing god’. This is extremely relevant to today’s society, as we continue to tamper with Mother Nature.
The use of the extreme close-up of the fragments reminds the audience of the idea of being ‘put under the microscope’ reflects society’s obsession with defining people by their genetic ‘background’ and further magnifies the importance of genetic material. The role of human relationships is important to Niccol in his film Gattaca. He forces us to understand the concept of systematic discrimination. People are no longer discriminated against by race, personality, or religion, but are judged only by the superiority of their genetic code, as stated “We now have discrimination down to a science”.
Visual metaphors in the film reinforce this concept. Various motifs throughout the film, such as glass and water, which illustrate the invisible walls Vincent is rebelling against. These motifs are seen in the film in separate scenes; one when Vincent is looking into Gattaca through the glass, when he is still a janitor, and another is shown in the swimming scene, with Anton becoming a symbol of the society who rejects Vincent. The continuously daunting identity checks throughout the movie reinforce the oppressive and dystopic society and the concerns presented further display the idea of discrimination.
Although the discrimination is not one that we have in this current society, the amount of discrimination we have now builds concerns that this could be a possible path for the future. Furthermore, a similar concern to that which has been raised in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is the idea of conformity versus the individual. This can connected to the idea of destiny versus freewill. Vincent chooses to ignore his destiny and rebel against what is considered to be ‘normal’ in order to reach his dreams. Gattaca shows us that our destiny cannot be mapped out using our genetic code.
In the beginning of the movie the idea of destiny seems to overshadow freewill. This is shown when Vincent’s ‘destiny’ is supposedly mapped out at the moment of his birth, being born with a 99% chance of a heart attack, his father realising this did not give him his name as he did not deem him worthy. Despite Vincent’s life being apparently planned for him, “there is no gene for the human spirit,” and this is shown when Vincent beats his ‘perfect’ brother in two rounds of the game ‘chicken’. The swimming scene contains another form of symbolism with the colours the two brothers are wearing.
The two brothers wear contrasting colours when racing. Vincent is wearing white, symbolising purity whilst his brother, wearing black represents altercations, and something that has been tampered with. When his brother asks how he could possibly have beaten him, Vincent replies “This is how I did it, Anton. I never saved anything for the swim back”. This quote further supports the concept of free will vs. destiny and that our free will and our determination are what ultimately determine the path our life will take.
Therefore, by taking a step back and examining the contextual concerns of the time that texts were written in, allows us to clearly see the issues and values the composers of texts are trying to create. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 the major value he is trying to send is that literature is much more important than technology and expresses to us his concerns for control of thoughts and the limit of knowledge one is permitted. Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca informs the audience of the values of individual identities and surpassing one’s boundaries. He allows us to understand the obsession with being perfect can be an unwarranted threat.
Both these writers of Science Fiction address to their audience of the unnecessary extremes that our world could lead to if we do not understand what our boundaries are. The context and techniques of these two medians have supported the statement that Science Fiction writers create dystopias to communicate their concerns about society and its future. They use these techniques to underline what society would be like if a totalitarian regime is enforced on society, where individual thought is discouraged and propaganda is fed to the masses in order to control society.