Dystopian Teaching

By Clint Burnham 

November 29, 2017

If you’ve taken a course or two this semester in the English department, you may have noticed a distinctly dystopian tone: in Margaret Linley’s 112, students read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In Antone Minard’s 111, he taught Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In Michael Everton’s 111, students also read Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep?, in Paul Budra’s 115 they also read The Road, and in my 357 I also taught The Handmaid’s Tale, as did Michelle Levy in FASS 101. So I talked to my colleagues about why we are all teaching such downer texts, if they relate to the present political moment, students’ reactions, and also, in light of the Hulu series re-making The Handmaid’s Tale this year and this fall’s Bladerunner 2049, what they thought of recent adaptations.

Dr. Budra’s reply was, as is his wont, short and succinct: “A couple of years ago I did an entire 105 on dystopian literature -- I began with H.G.Wells’  The Time Machine and finished with The Road. My favorite comment on the course evaluations was ‘This course made me sad.’ In general, students seem able to imagine bad futures more readily than good ones. Who can blame them?” Dr. Linley concurred, noting that all of the novels she is teaching “seem to reflect today’s political climate but because they were published before, in some cases long before, they also seem to anticipate it,” and adding that with “Trump’s recent tweets about Senator Al Franken as Frankenstein, it’s hard not to make the connection.” (Perhaps Trump is under the illusion that Frankenstein was the monster, not the scientist?) Dr. Levy added the twist that “Atwood challenges the belief, one that also seems to be shared by the aunts, that in the ‘before time’ women in fact enjoyed authentic ‘freedom to,’ a dark reality proven by the daily accounts of the violence, degradation, and harassment to which women are subjected. That these abuses of women are ubiquitous even in our seemingly liberal society makes Atwood’s imagined future all the more plausible, and our present moment all the more disturbing.” Indeed, in my class I also made the argument that the current Harvey Weinstein moment, and the Hulu series’ “before time” world of Tinder, Uber, and salted caramel ice cream suggests that it is not only the future that is dystopian.

And our teaching is also personal: Dr. Minard wrote that his entire course was pretty much “in direct reaction to Brexit and Trump,” noting “my father is American and my husband is British, so world events are hitting close to home.” But even these personal connections, dystopian literature tells us, have to be re-thought. Dr. Everton argued that the androids in Dick’s book “don't actually feel; Deckard just perceives them as ‘feeling’ –  we did talk about the ways in which there is an android consciousness, that there is something that it is like to be an android in this book. In the end, that's real enough for Deckard.” And on the other hand, dystopian fiction and its adaptations sometimes do not think radically enough: Dr. Linley said that while Bladerunner 2049 is better than she expected, it still has to tie “the question of life and futurity more clearly than ever to the holy grail of biological reproduction.” Turns out the post-human isn’t “post” enough?

Want to read more dystopian fiction? Check out Lithub.com’s list of 30 dystopian feminist novels.