3. Awaiting the Dystopia

Like the Gothic, dystopian fiction serves several functions in this proposed genre studies elective. First, the current popularity of dystopian fiction amongst teenagers, evidenced by The Hunger Games franchise’s three best-selling novels and four blockbuster films, will help recruit students to study literature. To help students dig deeper into the contexts with which they are already at least somewhat familiar, I buttress an already present enthusiasm with a course structure that allows for guided engagement with the genre’s seminal texts.  Second, dystopian fiction, although distinct from its Gothic cousin, similarly serves as a lens through which readers may critically assess the world at large and come to a more comprehensive understanding of it. As such, students of The Dark Days of Future Past will explore the various implications of dystopian fiction, specifically its critique of present conditions and its directing towards future possibilities.

For many, the appeal of dystopian fiction is that it contemplates what the future may look like if things go terribly awry – oppressive governments reign supreme, suffering is the status quo, and humanity is either on the brink of annihilation or struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic condition. On this front, dystopian fiction is revealed as a set of cautionary tales, narratives presenting potential futures that should be avoided at all costs. However, there is a case to be made that dashing utopian dreams upon the rocks actually operates as a critique of contemporary society, a means of looking at where society currently stands.

Warren Ellis, the writer and futurist best known for his cyberpunk comics series Transmetropolitan, argues that science fiction (the umbrella genre under which the dystopian falls) “was never supposed to be about predicting the future.” Instead, the function of any dystopian tale is to extrapolate a novum, “a new thing, from the present-day condition…The novum isn’t a prediction. It’s a possibility, an invention suggested by the sciences or the humanities, informed by the weather of the time” (Ellis). With this perspective in mind, The Dark Days of Future Past will require students to read dystopian works while asking more complex questions than just “What if this actually happened?” or “What could lead to this scenario?” Instead, students will be pointed towards drawing parallels that address a more unsettling but fruitful question: “In what ways are we already living in the proverbial dystopia?” After all, every dystopian work “is always about the time it’s written in. 1984 was always about 1948. Science fiction is social fiction” (Ellis).

In addition to critiquing present conditions, students enrolled in The Dark Days of Future Past will also be tasked with using the “What if?” scenarios presented by dystopian texts as springboards for considering solutions to today’s problems. In fact, by channeling readers’ attention towards the hyperbole and exaggerated levels of despair found in dystopian fiction, there exists the chance to evoke solutions of reciprocal value. Ray Bradbury, the science fiction master best known for the dystopian Fahrenheit 451, takes a moment in his collection Zen in the Art of Writing to make this very point. To achieve this end, Bradbury frames the speculative nature of science fiction as being part of a problem-solving tradition as old as mankind itself:

Pondering those problems and possible sciences, the first cavemen and women drew science-fiction dreams on the cave walls. Scribbles in soot blueprinting possible strategies. Illustrations of mammoths, tigers, fires: how to solve? How to turn science-fiction (problem solving) into science-fact (problem solved)… the entire history of mankind is problem solving, or science fiction swallowing ideas, digesting them, and excreting formulas for survival….No fantasy, no reality. No studies concerning loss, no gain. No imagination, no will. No impossible dreams: No possible solutions. (101-2)

Students will hypothesize how the oppressive forces presented in dystopian texts could actually be the consequences of the political developments, scientific discoveries, and technological advancements of our own world. The Bradbury excerpt provided above will serve as a sort of credo, reminding students to research all possible solutions when faced with the challenge of diagnosing society’s ailments. As such, The Dark Days of Future Past will be a venue for student explorations of the very real pitfalls and possibilities they have in front of them. Additionally, course assignments will require students to not only identify potentially disastrous elements of our society but also research possible solutions.

This sentiment is echoed by Wilkinson’s “Teaching Dystopian Literature to a Consumer Class,” which argues that dystopian fiction helps students break free of the myopia of their own contexts to gain access to more critical lenses. More specifically, Wilkinson believes that the genre can lead students to realize the dangers of unthinking, compulsive behavior (exemplified, in this article, as the detrimental consequences of rampant consumerism). As declared in the article, the visions embedded in dystopian literature “can help students deconstruct their contexts…Unrestrained, the worst of the ‘consumer class’ habits devastate the environment, deter critical thinking, disable language…As educators, we should help students question and challenge the social forces that are informing their habits, decisions, and personalities” (25).‍ After all, a premise of many dystopian texts is that average citizens are not only blind to the fact that they are being oppressed, but actually derive enjoyment from the mechanisms of their oppression.

For instance, the citizens of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 do not have time to think because they are constantly distracted, watching the “parlor walls” and listening to the “seashell radios” without reprieve. Although the novel was published more than sixty years ago, these technologies bear uncanny resemblances to the screens (television, monitor, phone) and ear buds used today. When students realize that their proclivities for consuming entertainment strongly parallel those of the oppressed citizens of Bradbury’s imagination, they begin to question why they have adopted these behaviors and what the implications may be. As a result, they embark upon the journey outlined by Wilkinson, with a newfound appreciation of contextual deconstruction and self-reflection in tow.

[next up: addressing the audiences]

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