A utopia is an imaginary society which significantly improves on the world inhabited by its author and in which human flourishing has been realised to an exceptionally high degree. A dystopia, by contrast, is a radically dysfunctional society where human flourishing is frustrated or blocked in some notable respect. In this module, we will study nine key examples from the history of dystopian fiction and cinema, beginning in the early twentieth century and ending in the early twenty-first.
Issues addressed on the module include, but are not limited to: totalitarianism, surveillance, censorship, consumerism, the culture industry, science and technology, reproductive rights, genetic engineering, cloning, artificial intelligence, and global heating. The dystopias will be considered from a range of perspectives: social, cultural, historical, political, and philosophical, as well as in terms of their bearing on our own contemporary moment.
The core syllabus consists of nine dystopian texts: four novels, four films, and a play. Some of these are established classics whilst others are more recent additions to the genre. The first week of the module is an introductory class, during which we shall consider the history of the concept from which 'dystopia' derives, namely that of 'utopia'. Examples will be drawn from the work of Plato, Thomas More, Karl Marx, William Morris, and Oscar Wilde, among others.
In the following weeks we will discuss Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), François Truffaut's (1966) film adaptation of Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451, Stanley Kubrick's (1971) adaptation of Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985), Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower (1993), the Wachowskis' The Matrix (1999), Caryl Churchill's A Number (2002), and Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer (2013). Ranging across literature, cinema, drama, and social theory, this module provides a focused cultural history of dystopia as it has unfolded over the last one-hundred years.
This module aims to foster students’ critical thinking by inviting them to consider how and in what ways societies may become dysfunctional. Through a close consideration of nine major literary and cinematic dystopias, students will reflect on what such fictional scenarios can teach us about society, culture, history, politics, and the pursuit of the good life in the modern world.
Students will acquire or deepen their knowledge of a range of texts, from literary classics like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) to more recent works in other media, such as Caryl Churchill’s play A Number (2002) and Bong Joon-ho’s film Snowpiercer (2013).
After successful completion of the module, students should be able to:
1. display a detailed knowledge of the genre of dystopian fiction
2. appreciate some of the main ways in which societies can become dysfunctional
3. approach their own historical moment from a critical perspective informed by dystopian fiction
4. demonstrate the knowledge and skills required to engage in intellectual debates around the issues raised by dystopian fiction.
The module syllabus consists of nine dystopian texts: four novels, four films, and a play. Some of these are established classics whilst others are more recent additions to the genre. The first week of the module is an introductory seminar, during which we shall consider the history of the concept from which 'dystopia' derives, namely that of 'utopia'. Examples will be drawn from the work of Plato, Thomas More, Karl Marx, William Morris, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Shulamith Firestone, and others.
In the second week we turn to our first dystopia: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), a chilling vision of a future social order maintained through genetic engineering and conformist consumerism. This is followed by George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which depicts a totalitarian regime where 'thoughtcrime' is punishable by death and the power of the state reaches into the most intimate aspects of its citizens' lives.
These two classic novels are followed by two major screen dystopias: François Truffaut's (1966) film adaptation of Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451 – which depicts a society where books have been banned and literature and philosophy are regarded as a threat to the status quo – and Stanley Kubrick's disturbing (1971) reworking of Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange – in which an alienated young offender in a near-future dystopian Britain has his behaviour reprogrammed via a controversial new psychological technique.
The next novel on the module is Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985), a work of speculative fiction in which a totalitarian theocracy has overthrown the U.S. government and 'Handmaids', members of a female underclass, are required to bear children on behalf of the upper-class 'Wives'. Our fourth and final novel is Octavia Butler's celebrated Afrofuturist text Parable of the Sower (1993), which recounts the origins of the fictional religion of 'Earthseed' amidst a civilisation on the brink of collapse.
Next we turn to The Matrix (1999), written and directed by the Wachowskis. This science fiction film envisages a dystopia in which, in the aftermath of a catastrophic global conflict, artificial intelligence controls the world and humanity has been enslaved by its own technology. Continuing with the theme of technology, in the penultimate week we read Caryl Churchill's play A Number (2002), which powerfully dramatises some of the issues raised by genetic engineering and the prospect of human cloning. Finally, Bong Joon-ho's critically-acclaimed film Snowpiercer (2013) depicts the sharply divided social order which emerges after a failed attempt to reverse global warming produces a new ice age.