Mark Danner

Through a Future Darkly: Global Crisis and the Triumph of Dystopia

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 My office is Aspinwall 111. My writing, speaking and other information can be found at my website,

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

  1. 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

  1. 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

  1. 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

  1. 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

  1. 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

  1. 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

  1. 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

  1. 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

  1. 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

  1. 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

  1. 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

  1. 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


Children of Men



A Scanner Darkly

District 9

Mad Max

The Matrix


Total Recall

Brave New World