Wednesday, June 6, 2012

From the Strange to the Familiar: Teaching Dystopian Stories

This summer, I am teaching an online class on science fiction and fantasy literature.  It's a short class--only about 7 weeks--and one of the challenges of the course is conveying the same information as in a full 14-week course while also lessening the reading load a bit so the students don't collapse (or rebel).

One of the units of the course is on utopian and dystopian fiction, and in the full version of the course, we would read George Orwell's 1984.  For this version of the course, I selected three short stories instead--Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," Ray Bradbury's "The Pedestrian," and Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery."

There are a number of advantages to using these three stories instead of Orwell's novel, one of which is that I was able to find all three of these stories online somewhere.  Not only does this mean that the financial cost of the course is less for my students, but it also means that they are taken outside of Blackboard (the platform used to teach the course), which is something the instructional design team highly recommended.  Apparently staring at the Blackboard interface all the time drives students crazy.

But using these stories has more benefits than my students' mental health.  They are also incredibly rich stories, with lots to talk about and point out.  Take "The Pedestrian," for example.  When Leondard Mead first talks about his walking, he describes it as being "not unequal to walking through a graveyard where only the faintest glimmers of firefly light appeared in flickers behind the windows."  Bradbury carries the imagery of death through the story so smoothly, always connecting it to the houses in which people sit, watching television.  Mead's own house stands brightly illuminated, standing out as a warm beacon in a city of darkness and death.  This subtle difference in lighting makes Mead the hero, rather than the isolated loner.

"Harrison Bergeron" is also contains fascinating imagery--it's fun to look at the different ways in which the noises in George's head are described, for instance.  But it's also interesting to think about what the story means.  It seems, on the surface, at least, to be a condemnation of a society in which everyone is forced to be equal, where the unique talents of each individual are suppressed, rather than celebrated.  And given the publication of the story in 1961, during the Cold War, this interpretation seems to make sense.  But Vonnegut's political tendencies leaned left, making a reading of this story as a condemnation of communism a slightly less obvious choice.  It's interesting to consider the possibility that this story, rather than demonstrating the evils of a completely egalitarian society, is meant to show how ridiculous the American public's fears about communism were.

Perhaps the biggest advantage to teaching these three stories rather than Orwell's novel, however, is that they provide three separate versions of dystopian society, rather than just one.  Students are then able to compare and contrast the different possible ways in which a society can go wrong, thinking about what values they think are most important for society to maintain or what they most fear society becoming.  And it is in this last regard that I find Shirley Jackson's story so amazingly powerful because, as I pointed out to my students, it hardly qualifies as science fiction at all.  There is no new technology that sets the story apart as existing in the future--in fact, for readers in the 21st century, the gender roles and fashion depicted in the story place it closer to the "Golden Age" of the 1950s. 

It is perhaps because of this closeness to our own society that Jackson's dystopia is the one that I am most afraid of.  I found myself laughing with the townspeople as they gathered together and gossiped and joked; their company was familiar and easy, rather than off-putting and strange.  There were no obvious differences between their life and mine, no robots, no physical devices they all wear, and so I was able to travel through the story with them easily, right up until the moment that someone puts little pebbles in the hands of Davey Hutchinson--barely more than a toddler--so that he can stone his own mother.  And then my mouth dropped open in abject horror, a horror made so much worse by the comfort that I was feeling just three paragraphs earlier. 

It is this society that I fear the most--a society that is so close to our own, or that maybe is our own, but with just one seemingly small thing different so that we don't notice that it is wrong until it is too late.  But perhaps, by talking about these stories, this is the kind of society that we can help to prevent.