LT250-5-AU-CO:
Dystopias

The details
2019/20
Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies
Colchester Campus
Autumn
Undergraduate: Level 5
Current
Thursday 03 October 2019
Saturday 14 December 2019
15
03 May 2019

 

Requisites for this module
(none)
(none)
(none)
(none)

 

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Key module for

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Module description

A utopia is an imagined social order in which human flourishing has either been perfected or realised to an exceptionally high degree. A dystopia, by contrast, is a radically dysfunctional society in which the lives of the inhabitants are significantly impaired, damaged, or otherwise undesirable. In this module, we will study nine landmarks from the history of dystopian fiction and cinema, beginning in the early twentieth century and ending in the early twenty-first.

Topics and issues addressed on the module include, but are not limited to, authoritarianism, surveillance, censorship, consumerism, the culture industry, Afrofuturism, reproductive rights, feminist utopias, genetic engineering, cloning, artificial intelligence, and global warming. 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 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 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 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 a combination of consumerism, genetic engineering, and mental conditioning. 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 ethical and philosophical 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.

Module aims

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 for human beings. Students will acquire or deepen their knowledge of a range of texts, from literary classics like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to more recent works in other media, such as Caryl Churchill’s play A Number and Bong Joon-ho’s film Snowpiercer.

Module learning outcomes

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.

Module information

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.

Learning and teaching methods

The module will be taught via weekly two-hour lecture-seminars. Each week, students will read/watch one dystopian text which will be the focus of class discussion. The one exception to this will be the first week, which will serve as an introduction to the module. Students will consider the texts on the syllabus in relation to the issues they address, the historical contexts in which they were written/directed, and their bearing on our own historical moment. Information about the module will be provided on Moodle.

Bibliography

  • Churchill, Caryl. (©2002) A number, London: Nick Hern Books.
  • Wachowski, Andy; Wachowski, Larry. (1999) The Matrix, Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video.
  • Huxley, Aldous. (no date) Brave New World, New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics. vol. Harper Perennial modern classics
  • Truffaut, François. (1966) Fahrenheit 451, Universal City, CA: Universal Studios.
  • Bong Joon-ho. (no date) Snowpiercer.
  • Atwood, Margaret. (2016) The handmaid's tale, London: Vintage.
  • Butler, Octavia E. (no date) Parable of the Sower, New York: Seven Stories Press. vol. bk. 1
  • Orwell, George. (no date) Nineteen Eighty-Four, London: Penguin. vol. Modern classics
  • Kubrick, Stanley. (1971) A Clockwork Orange, Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Entertainment.

The above list is indicative of the essential reading for the course. The library makes provision for all reading list items, with digital provision where possible, and these resources are shared between students. Further reading can be obtained from this module's reading list.

Assessment items, weightings and deadlines

Coursework / exam Description Deadline Weighting
Coursework Participation 10%
Coursework Short Written Exercise 23/10/2019 10%
Coursework Essay (2,500 words) 03/01/2020 80%
Exam 120 minutes during Summer (Main Period) (Main)

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
50% 50%

Reassessment

Coursework Exam
50% 50%
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Dr Sean Seeger
LiFTS Admin Team liftstt@essex.ac.uk

 

Availability
Yes
No
No

External examiner

Prof Duncan James Salkeld
Professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature
Resources
Available via Moodle
Of 62 hours, 44 (71%) hours available to students:
18 hours not recorded due to service coverage or fault;
0 hours not recorded due to opt-out by lecturer(s).

 

Further information

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