Topnav_thin
Loading
SEARCH SITE
Subject:
Publication:
Description   |   Syllabus

Through a Future Darkly: Global Crisis and the Triumph of Dystopia
Bard College
Fall 2015

Description
At what past moment did the future grow so dark? Formal literary dystopia 

has been with us prominently since at least 1726, with the arrival of Swift’s 

Gulliver. But the tendency to critique the present by imagining a darkly 

extrapolated future surely extends back much further – and grew in 

prevalence and popularity until the twentieth became the veritable dystopic 

century. Today central components of dystopian satire -- global climate 

destruction, nuclear annihilation, terrorist states – have become 

commonplaces of our politics. In such a world has dystopia become 

prophetic, or redundant? In this seminar we will grapple with that question, 

as we explore the literature of dystopia present and past, plumbing 

increasingly murky visions of destruction to come. Authors whose work we 

will read include Margaret Atwood, J.G. Ballard, Anthony Burgess, Philip 

K. Dick, Russell Hoban, Aldous Huxley, Franz Kafka, Jack London, Andrei 

Platonov, Philip Roth, H.G. Welles, and Yevgeny Zamyatin.



Syllabus
Through a Future Darkly 

Global Crisis and the Triumph of Dystopia

Lit 307, Fall 2015, Bard College 

Wednesdays 1:30PM- 3:50PM, OLIN 101 

Mark Danner

At what past moment did the future grow so dark? Formal literary dystopia 

has been with us prominently since at least 1726, with the arrival of Swift’s 

Gulliver. But the tendency to critique the present by imagining a darkly 

extrapolated future surely extends back much further – and grew in 

prevalence and popularity until the twentieth became the veritable dystopic 

century. Today central components of dystopian satire -- global climate 

destruction, nuclear annihilation, terrorist states – have become 

commonplaces of our politics. In such a world has dystopia become 

prophetic, or redundant? In this seminar we will grapple with that question, 

as we explore the literature of dystopia present and past, plumbing 

increasingly murky visions of destruction to come. Authors whose work we 

will read include Margaret Atwood, J.G. Ballard, Anthony Burgess, Philip 

K. Dick, Russell Hoban, Aldous Huxley, Franz Kafka, Jack London, Andrei 

Platonov, Philip Roth, H.G. Welles, and Yevgeny Zamyatin.

Class Requirements This is a seminar – a discussion class - which means 

the success of the class depends on student participation. The most important 

requirements are that students

*Attend all class sessions

*Do all reading and writing assignments

*Participate in discussions

A student’s record of attendance and participation in class discussion, 

together with the thoroughness of his or her preparation, will determine the 

success of our class and contribute the better part of the grade.

Schedule: Note that all classes will take place on Wednesday afternoons, 

1:30PM- 3:50PM. 

Reading: Our primary reading will draw largely from a series of dystopian 

novels, which are listed below. I strongly urge you to obtain these books in 

your own copies, and in the edition specified, either from the school 

bookstore or from online suppliers, so that you will be able to highlight and 

annotate them.

Writing: Students will be assigned one final research paper of twelve pages. 

There may be the occasional in-class quiz. To bolster the clarity and vigor of 

your English prose, I strongly suggest reading two works: George Orwell’s 

essay, “Politics and the English Language” and Strunk and White’s little 

manual, The Elements of Style. The text of the Orwell essay can be found 

easily on the web.

Presentations: Each student will make one presentation in class on his or her 

own favored utopia or dystopia, or on a subject related to our assigned 

reading. Use of multimedia is encouraged. 

Office Hours: I will hope to meet with each of you individually at least once 

during the course of the term. We will make these appointments on an ad 

hoc basis. I am best reached via email, at mark@markdanner.com. My office 

is Aspinwall 111. My writing, speaking and other information can be found 

at my website, markdanner.com.

Grading: Students will be graded on their preparedness and their 

participation in class, the strength of their presentations and the quality of 

their written work. For all of these reasons a solid record of attendance is 

essential. 

Required Texts

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (Anchor, 1998 [1985]), 311

J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World (Liveright, 2013 [1963]), 175

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (Norton, 2011 [1962]), 213

Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Del Rey, 1996 

[1968]), 256

Franz Kafka, The Trial (Schocken, 1999 [1915/25]), 304

Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (Indiana, 1998 [1980]), 254

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (Harper, 2005 [1932]), 288

Jack London, The Iron Heel (Penguin, 2006 [1908]), 288

Andrei Platonov, The Foundation Pit (NYRB, 2009 [1930/87]), 208

Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (Vintage, 2005), 391

H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (Penguin, 2005 [1895]), 128

Evgeny Zamyatin, We (Modern Library, 2006 [1921]), 240

Tentative Syllabus

1. September 2, 2015 -- First Day Of Class

Class Notes - The shape of history; heading towards a destination. Revelation and 

Apocalypse. Technological Utopianism - Robert Joyce and the Singularity. The End of 

History. Dystopian Signs: environmental demise, surveillance, class disparity, 

concentration of power, forever war. Jeremy Bentham and the Panopticon. Loss of 

control. Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516. In Latin, ‘uo topos’ meaning ‘no place’ 

vs ‘eu topos’ meaning ‘good place’ about island off the coast of S. America. “Ideal State” 

can such a place exist and is it ironic? Dystopian themes are inherent in Utopian stories.

Assignments: The Time Machine, passage from Hughes’ translation of The 

Metamorphosis

Presentation: No presentation

2. September 9--  H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (Penguin, 2005 [1895])                

Class Notes - Creation myth and genesis and Pagan sensibility of time. Mythological 

account of the ages leading towards redemption (singularity?) H.G. Wells, mentee of 

T.H. Auxley, influenced by Darwin. Time Machine a reflection of 19th century class 

struggle, predicted tank and human flight. “Secular Prophet” Control over nature, 

progress as mastery. Socialism and Communism “contradicts” science/evolution. Novel 

construction; “narrator” is voice of the overall story. Frame narrative gives it moral 

bookend, can instill doubt and irony. Plot; Irony defined as “the distance between what is 

said and what is meant.” Suspense attained by foreshadowing and warning that his initial 

thoughts are wrong. Anthropological questioning of species, questioning reality. Science 

vs. Socialism - materialistic preoccupation.      

Assignments: The Iron Heel                                                                                 

Presentation: Mandy Beckley presented on the lasting trope of the Wellsian Time 

3. September 16-- Jack London, The Iron Heel (Penguin, 2006 [1908])                    

Class Notes - London as mirror image of Everhard, “Boy Socialist of Oakland”, ran for 

mayor, self taught Socialist. Heel published after 1905 Russian Revolution, prophetic of 

WWI. Oligarchy; control of everything (military and corporations) by a select 

few.Trusts=monopolies. Strong nationalism, concentration of economy, secret police. 

Frame narrative by Meredith. Avis Everhard historical manuscript in middle. Footnotes 

add hope (lighten mood with reminder of eventual revolution) and tragedy (Avis and 

Everhard killed.) Argument against reformism. Holes in narrative; “glob of ideologies, 

centuries pass between middle and end frame, masculine virility and power, Everhard is 

“natural aristocrat.” ‘Soft Science Fiction (the close near future) Problem of suspense, 

ideas of “natural power”, London’s ambivalence towards working class people.                                                                                                                

Assignments: The Trial                                                                                     

Presentation: None

4. September 23—Franz Kafka, The Trial (Schocken, 1999 [1915/25]) 

Class Notes - Jewish mysticism. Published in 1925.  Kafka worked at insurance 

company, familiar w. atmosphere of bureaucracy. Deal with obsessive neurosis; guilt, 

paranoia, doubt, confusion, judgment, lust. ¨Obscure lucidity¨ form is lucid, content 

ambiguous; no idea what is really happening and a compulsion to interpret. Irony in 

sarcasm. Obsessed with parental authority; Law and authority in general. Present 

dystopia; view of contemporary, shadow world. Loss of reality and ongoing sense of 

futility. Blurring of public/private space, boundaries unclear, dream logic. Inability to 

alter fate; out of control. Paradoxical court system; once you are accused, you are guilty. 

Protraction strategy. Mise en abîme, parable. Sexual anxiety and obsession with power.

Assignments: We

Presentation: Malkie

5. September 30 – Evgeny Zamyatin, We (Modern Library, 2006 [1921])

Class Notes - Technology replaces the past, WWI/Russian revolution right before We is 

written. Ulysses and The Wasteland. We takes place 600-1000 years in the future; 

everything is rationalized/Scientism. Zamyatin jailed twice for satirist, communist 

activities. POV= wrote in 1921, about 3,000; how do we see it in 2015? War 

Communism, debate about rationalism; “What is to Be Done?” Cities of crystal and 

glass. Can equality and freedom coexist? State sexuality; people showing their “human 

sides” do not fit. Prose tries to show futurism by describing people and feelings 

mathematically. Propaganda cargo. Is Utopian thinking inherently repressive?

Assignments:  The Fountain Pit

Presentation: Emily Brown, Dystopia, Futurism and Taylorism

6. October 7 -- Andrei Platonov, The Foundation Pit (NYRB, 2009 [1930/87])

Class Notes - Difficult and uncomfortable; attempts to describe the undescribable. 

Platonov's personal history matches Soviet history. Written in 1930, not published until 

1980’s. Stalin’s Five Year plan; Platonov tried to write about coping with mass murder, 

explain the disaster of the present by the hope of the future. “The Pit” metaphor for 

socialist paradise (it's never finished.) Use of degraded, bureaucratic phrases, 

propaganda; distances the text. Highly emotional prose filled with nature and nostalgia, 

how to live in present desolation, “normalizing the abnormal” (reader is implicated.) 

Protagonist moves through the consciousness of many characters. Dark fairy tale and 

religious elements. Metaphysical questions of how people change things or don’t; 

passivity and absence of agency. “A warning” from a believer in the revolution but has 

witnessed massacre.

Assignment: Brave New World

Presentation: None

October 14 --  NO CLASS, Fall Break

7. October 21 -- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (Harper, 2005 [1932])

Class Notes - Huxley appalled by U.S., then moved here. Came from scientific family; 

taught George Orwell. Obsessed with eugenics, population control. Utilitarianism, 

judging in terms of happiness and goodness for the most people. Parody; attack on notion 

of empty happiness. Predetermination of life; mediation of happiness. ¨Amusing 

ourselves to death.¨ Literature as expression and emotional release; BNW got rid of ´fear 

of death´. Stability is driving force. Interview with Huxley (1958) predicted notion of 

political circus. Ultimate revolution (anti revolution.) Sex is tipping point of subjugation. 

Ford & Freud, romance about capitalism. Foucault, institutionalization and soft 

totalitarianism.

Assignment: A Clockwork Orange

Presentation: Wilberforce - Apathetic comparisons in Brave New World and our world 

8. October 28 – Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (Norton, 2011 [1962])

Class Notes - Burgess, linguist and known liar. Written in 3 parts, 7 chapters each. 

Needed money, US edition cut last chapter (weak, unsure ending) although went against 

own wishes. Near future, uses language as distancing effect, explores notion original sin 

and free will. Thematic language, the self-awareness of the ´baby boomer´. ¨I do what I 

do because I like to do.¨ Chapter 1 is Alex's violent world, followed by incarceration, 

then his release and a return to the world of chapter 1. Burgess inserts himself into Alex; 

concern for youth culture, delight in violence (nihilistic).Pelagian and Augustinian 

theory; natural predilection for evil. Dystopia is the governmental control of the choice.

Assignment: The Drowned World

Presentation: Izzy on Music in ¨A Clockwork Orange¨ and Tessa on language 

morphology 

9. November 4 – J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World (Liveright, 2013 [1963])

Class Notes - Ballard considered this first novel. Prophetic of climate change; plot seems 

¨plausible¨ in 2015. Published same year as Silent Spring. Natural changes in book 

happen outside of human causation. Deus Ex Machina; plot element from outside that 

pulls it together. Explores the new internal changes brought on by extreme weather shifts; 

¨Heart of Darkness¨, de-evolution and genetic memory. Dramatic shifts (it starts in 

dreams). Ballard was born in Shanghai, earliest memory was of seasonal floods; studied 

to be psychiatrist. Focuses on description and theory rather than plot. No theme of escape 

(humans are part of nature), no salvation. Rapid radiation and mutation due to solar 

flares; human extinction. Genre du Sud (south); ¨Death in Venice¨. Ernst and Delvaux 

paintings. Placenta, uterine, womb and other birth tropes. Boundaries broken down, uses 

Wellsian language. 

Assignment: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Presentation: None

10. November 11 – Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Del Rey, 

1996 [1968]) 

Class Notes - Post-human; empathy is what distinguishes humans and machines. 

Empathy box, mood organ; manipulation of emotions. Moral imperative to care about 

animals; utmost feature of being human. Memories vs. empathy, doubling and paranoia. 

Patrolling human borders. Turing test. Ironic twist- humans moving away from empathy; 

choosing artificial empathy and science. Hysteria over controlling power hierarchy. 

Dystopic suburbia. Ideological notions of control; binary systems - Busterism/Mercerism. 

Simulacrum, creation of artificial contact. Broad satire. Treatment of Specials; social 

control shows a very UNsympathetic society. Void of humanity, filled by tech. The 

singularity entails 1) machines surpassing humans and 2) uploading human 

consciousness. 

Assignment: Riddley Walker 

Presentation: Rachel presenting on Philip K. Dick and Alex presenting on Blade Runner

11. December 2 – Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (Indiana, 1998 [1980]) 

Class Notes - Mirror image timeline. 2015 mythic past of plot. Archetype of the 1970’s 

(SALT). Full of games, puzzles, puns. “Myth of the Eternal Return” - Iron Age; 

hunter/gatherers and farmers. Plot revolves around recreation of gunpowder; 

reincarnation of lost technologies. Orthographic language; how it looks vs. how it sounds. 

Deep characterization, hidden cultural elements and clues. End of natural era, giving way 

to agriculture. Knowledge=badness and progress is feared. The return of “cleverness”. 

Plot tied together with magical qualities. 

Assignment: The Handmaid’s Tale

Presentation: Julia presenting on Russell Hoban and Beatrice presenting own dystopia

12. December 9 – Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (Anchor, 1998 [1985]) 

Class Notes - Inspired by Atwood’s political present; Reagan revolution - right wing 

antics and political reversion. Theocratic government (based loosely on Iran) Adoption of 

caste system. Gilead - town in present day Jordan, “seeking transformation of God”. 

Handmaid reference to Leah and Bilah in the Bible. Hierarchy of fertility- no 

reproductive autonomy, defined by uterus. Nods to 2nd wave feminism. Information 

control - rumor system devoid of technology. Love as self-limitation; women imprisoned 

in negative patterning. To be tricked, charmed, to fall with clumsiness. 

Assignment: The Plot Against America 

Presentation: Acacia on the New Right, Reaganism and Radical Feminism. Peter 

presenting on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the American West; Sarah 

presenting on the Utopian vision of Charles Fourier

13. December 14 – Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (Vintage, 2005)

Class Notes - Uchronia. Historical novels; fictitious piece of time. Written in 2004; 

Bush/Lindbergh comparison. People who should be speaking out weren’t - anxiety and 

panic. Henry Ford/Trump comparison. “American Realism.” Densely written book about 

family. Complicated narrator/ Philip Roth from three different angles. What Maisie 

Knew; not directly affected by public life but through parents and community. 

Speculative in a different sense -focusing on what already exists, asking what if this had? 

Raises parents from death. Reflection of own fears onto fictional family downstairs, 

narrative twins. Profound political paranoia - directly relates to 2015. A revisiting of a 

nightmare of not having a homeland.

Presentation: Austin presenting on the correlation between scientific advancement and 

dystopia. Maeve presenting on why we are all so interested in dystopia/young adult 

fiction. Naomi presenting a round of match which 2015 presidential candidate to 

dystopias from our class.

        

Further Reading

Haruki Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Samuel Beckett, The Lost Ones

William Burroughs, Naked Lunch

Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel

Philip K. Dick, A Scanner, Darkly

Joe Halderman, The Forever War

P.D. James, Children of Men

Adam Johnson, The Orphan Masters Son

Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here

Andrew MacDonald, The Turner Diaries

Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Maureen McHugh, China Mountain Zhang

Walter Miller, A Canticle for Liebowitz

Alan Moore, V for Vendetta

Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading

Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Andrei Platonov, Chevengur

Vladimir Sorokin, Day of the Oprichnik

Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

Fernando Vallejo, Our Lady of the Assassins

H.G. Welles, The Sleeper Awakes

      Some Dystopian Films

V for Vendetta

The Trial

A Clockwork Orange

The Handmaid’s Tale

The Time Machine

The Road

Ghost in the Shell

Our Lady of the Assassins

The Island

Idiocracy

Children of Men

Gattaca

Elysium

A Scanner Darkly

District 9

Mad Max

The Matrix

Brazil

Total Recall

Brave New World

Robocop

Avatar

1984


© 2017 Mark Danner