Archives For Dystopia

There are waves from England that reach America’s shores.

There are literary waves.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm was published in America in 1946.

There are musical waves.
The Beatles came to America in 1964.

George Orwell used satire as a commentary on Communism in the USSR and the rise of Stalin in his allegory Animal Farm.

John Lennon used the lyrics in the song Revolution as a response to the increase of protests against the Vietnam War, specifically student riots in Paris in May of 1968.

Satire, politics, protests….so many connections. Why not share them in class?
Why not share the Beatles’ song Revolution while students read Orwell’s Animal Farm?


You say you want a revolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know you can count me out

Don’t you know it’s gonna be alright
Alright, alright

You say you got a real solution
Well you know
We don’t love to see the plan
You ask me for a contribution
Well you know
We’re doing what we can
But if you want money for people with minds that hate
All I can tell you is brother you have to wait (Revolution lyrics continued…)

After we read first chapter of Animal Farm aloud in class, I played the video of the Beatles performing the song Revolution. For some, this was the first time they had ever heard the song; for some, this was the first time they had seen the Beatles perform.

After watching the video, I posted an assignment to use the power of music – “to write a song for your cause.” The directions given to the students were:

You say you want a Revolution….?
Well, you have to write your song!! (for extra credit)

Step 1: Identify your cause. What makes you angry? What do you see as a problem in society? What is your Pet Peeve? What would you like to change about your world? This can be something big or little.

Step 2: The power of music! To persuade people to join your revolution, (like Major’s Beasts of England) you have to write a song.

Step 3: Share your lyrics, and we will join you in song (karaoke tunes preferred)

Their protest songs came in. In their songs the students protested: homework, English class (*sigh*), the school parking lot ban on underclassmen, bad weather, cafeteria food, Twilight movies, dirt clods in the hallways from steel-toed boots, the ban on cupcakes in class, and (and there were several of these), Justin Bieber.

While their songs were unlikely to inspire a revolution, they did appreciate the power of music in communicating a message. Their reactions to their own songs of protest were positive, but they admitted that their songs did not have the same power as the Beatle’s Revolution. They recognized Orwell’s statement on the power of song in Animal Farm “The Beasts of England” sung at the end of Chapter One. That song (sung to the tune of My Darling Clementine) was a take-off on the famous socialist anthem, The Internationale:

Beasts of England, Beasts of Ireland,
Beasts of every land and clime,
Hearken to my joyful tidings
Of the Golden future time.

Soon or late the day is coming,
Tyrant Man shall be o’erthrown,
And the fruitful fields of England
Shall be trod by beasts alone…….(continued )

 “…The singing of this song threw the animals into the wildest excitement…. And then, after a few preliminary tries, the whole farm burst out into Beasts of England in tremendous unison….” (Ch1:Orwell)

Orwell was demonstrating how the lyrics in a song could motivate. The student protest songs, however, were more entertaining than motivating. The Beatle’s song Revolution is both entertaining and motivating, a song written four years after their momentous arrival in America.

From the moment the Beatles disembarked from Pan-Am flight 101 on February 7, 1964, they were a force in American music. Yet, according to TIME magazine’s story, Beatlemania Begins: The Beatles First U.S. Visit to Play Ed Sullivan, the Beatles were surprised by how their music had made thousands of frenetic fans:

Just before 1:30 p.m., Flight 101 taxied to a stop outside the terminal and the aircraft door popped open. An explosion of cheers and screams rang out as the crowd stormed forward….

“We heard that our records were selling well in America,” George [Harrison] noted, “but it wasn’t until we stepped off the plane … that we understood what was going on. Seeing thousands of kids there to meet us made us realize just how popular we were there.”

Their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (February 9) featured a set list that set fans shrieking:

  • All My Loving 
  • Till There Was You (Sue Raney cover)
  • She Loves You 
  • I Saw Her Standing There 
  • I Want to Hold Your Hand

Those five songs began the domination of pop music charts, coined the term “Beatlemania”, and changed the culture of a generation. The Beatles proved the power of music, so our protest song assignment capitalized on student awareness of this power. The students shared what they would protest if given the opportunity. They had a chance to make connections between two genres, between a set of music lyrics and a set of lyrics from a novel-both of which were penned by Englishmen.

This was also an opportunity for me to highlight the Beatles. Students watched and listened to a recording of the “Fab Four” who created a revolution in music here in America; they saw those “lads from Liverpool” who invaded America from England many Yesterday’s ago.

House of the ScorpionThere they were. Four used copies of Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion, and they were my find of the day at the Friends of the Danbury Public Library Fall Book Sale last weekend in Danbury, Connecticut. The unmistakeable bright red-orange and black spines were scattered in the author-alphabetized “F” section of the fiction offerings. They should have been in the young adult (YA) section, but a volunteer’s shelving error was probably why they were still available when I arrived. In this case, chance favored me.

I first became acquainted with Farmer’s science fiction novel two summers ago when I heard the plot involved cloning. I was looking for YA literature that could be used as a companion pieces to  Frankenstein; novels that incorporated many of the ethical questions raised by recent advances in the science of cloning. Science fiction was the genre that offered the most obvious choices. Farmer herself recognizes how science fiction anticipates the problems created by real science, saying:

“Science fiction allows you to approach a lot of social issues you can’t get to directly. If you wrote a book about how cloning is horrible, it would read like a sermon and no one would pay attention to it. “

The genre of science fiction is amazingly prescient in predicting technological advances.  H. G. Wells’ offered  The First Men in the Moon in 1901, 68 years before Neil Armstrong exited Apollo 11 and took steps on the lunar surface.  Digital books, submarines, droids and robots were features in science fiction novels before they became real nouns in our vocabulary. Credit for dreaming up the Internet is given to a wide spectrum of  fiction writers, from Mark Twain to Arthur C. Clarke, and manipulating human life has its genesis with 18 year old Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Therefore, Farmer is following the successful literary tradition of predicting man’s future. Her prediction takes the form of another dystopia, the equivalent of a political science crash course in failed nation-states for young readers.

Her opening mimic another great science fiction read, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. His great satire’s opening scene is in a factory that is manufacturing embryos. With streamlined industrialized precision, conveyor belts carry embryos that are then deprived of oxygen in order to create a caste of mindless workers. Farmer borrows some of Huxley’s ideas and begins her story with images that recall that frightening scenario:

A dull, red light shown on the faces of the workers as they watched their own arrays of little glass dishes. Each one contained a drop of life. (1.2)

In addition, Farmer’s predictions of a territory between the United States and Mexico controlled by drug cartels is plausible. That is the setting for her “coming of age” story of a young clone named Matt. The medical breakthroughs that create Matt, a clone of the drug lord El Patrón, are also feasible. Matt is unaware that his life is both protected by his status as the clone for the most powerful man in the land of Opium and endangered by El Patrón’s mortality…and at 146 years old, El Patrón is very mortal.

Farmer combines the issues of organ-harvesting, the economics of drug use, and adds a few Zombies for an exciting read that contains several amazing plot twists. I remember my jaw dropping…I didn’t see one twist coming at all. Farmer’s inventiveness with plot and skills as a storyteller resulted in the book receiving both a National Book Award for Young Adult Literature and a Newbery Honor in 2002. 

Last year, we offered 7th grade independent choices in literature circles centered on their interest in dystopias. The House of the Scorpion was one title offered along with other science fiction novels including Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, Neil Shusterman’s Unwind, and several of Scott Westerfield’s selections from his Pretties series. Students fresh from reading Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Game Trilogy were ready for other predictions for the future, and those who had not completed the series were given the opportunity to read these as well.

The cost for the four gently used copies at the book sale was $8.00; copies normally retail for $8.10, so this was a “buy one get three free” bargain in comparison. Based on other used book sales, we now have a class set (30) of The House of the Scorpion. The novel could be an all class read, however, as some of the topics in the novel require mature readers, we opt to make this and the novel Feed independent choice books.

The ethical questions raised in Frankenstein and The House of the Scorpion makes them good companion pieces, but that is not the only reason to pair them together. Our English Department’s essential question is “What does it mean to be human?” Literature gives students the language and the models for answering that question. The Monster in Frankenstein and the protagonist Matt in The House of the Scorpion are “non-human” characters that make students consider that being human may not be limited by the definitions in science, but by the possibilities in science fiction.

What better way to celebrate International Women’s Day 2013 but to pay tribute to Canadian author Margaret Atwood? Poet, novelist, lecturer, inventor, tweeter, and celebrity ice hockey goalie, Atwood’s achievements in each of these roles is accomplished with wit, grace, and aplomb.

Handmaid's tale

There are other earlier covers, but this one is my personal favorite.

My Advanced Placement English Literature class just finished reading her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel is set in the dystopia of Gilead, where in response to political and ecological upheaval, a quasi-Christian theocracy is organized in the eastern section of the United States. Astute Sparknote writers, graduates of Harvard, recognized many of the landmarks in the novel’s setting (the brick wall, the gymnasium) as that of their alma mater, an indication of Atwood’s wry sense of irony. In the novel, fertility is an obsession. Rituals and “ceremonies” are enforced; offenders and outliers are publicly executed or sent to labor in toxic waste dumps. The main character Offred, who had a daughter before the establishment of the Republic of Gilead, is valued only for her ability to reproduce.

Because of the mature themes, The Handmaid’s Tale is often taught in senior high school classes. The title is often suggested on the exam for the open-ended Question #3 on the AP Literature exam which means other schools assign the book. There are always plenty of copies available in the secondary market. Our classroom library has over 60 copies from a variety of library book sales and thrift stores. I have spent under $100.00 in adding this title to our curriculum; I’d like to think that Atwood might be pleased with this “ecological” way to have students read the text despite her loss of possible retail revenue. However, if one wanted a new copy, they are available at Amazon for $10.20 paperback or an audio recording by Claire Danes is available  at  for $24.95.

When we discuss the clothing that marks the different “castes” of people in Gilead,  I always use the endpaper story Atwood published in the New York Times Magazine published “When Afghanistan Was at Peace”

Six years after our trip, I wrote ”The Handmaid’s Tale,” a speculative fiction about an American theocracy. The women in that book wear outfits derived in part from nuns’ costumes, partly from girls’ schools’ hemlines and partly — I must admit — from the faceless woman on the Old Dutch Cleanser box, but also partly from the chador I acquired in Afghanistan and its conflicting associations. As one character says, there is freedom to and freedom from. But how much of the first should you have to give up in order to assure the second? All cultures have had to grapple with that, and our own — as we are now seeing — is no exception. Would I have written the book if I never visited Afghanistan? Possibly. Would it have been the same? Unlikely.”

Dutch Cleanser

The combination of the Dutch Cleanser girl with the chador is the inspiration for Offred’s clothing; the story and the visual always sparks a discussion on the symbolic effect of clothing.

My students always argue about the genre of The Handmaid’s Tale. This year there were a number of votes for political science book, others for a dystopian love story; no one said science fiction. Atwood would be relieved; she has always drawn the distinction between science fiction and her writing which she calls “speculative fiction”. Several of my students also read the other books Oryx and Crake and The Year of The Flood that are speculative fiction.

Here is Atwood with her take on the genre of specultive fiction.

The conclusion of The Handmaid’s Tale ends in an allusion to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice:

“We may call Eurydice forth from the world of the dead, but we cannot make her answer; and when we turn to look at her we glimpse her only for a moment, before she slips from our grasp and flees.”

After we finished the novel, the class read Atwood’s poem Eurydice. I asked them what they thought.

  • “There is a sense of longing in both.”
  • “The language is so similar. There is the white curtain…the gauze.”
  • “‘It is not through him you will get your freedom’ is just like
    from and freedom to…that is Offred’s problem”
  • “We could have just read the poem! They’re almost the same!”

One other area of speculative fiction where Atwood has shared her thoughts is on the topic of modernity…and Zombies. In an interview on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, Atwood was quite clear on the limits of Zombie stories:

“No zombie story is ever told from the zombie point of view… they’re not narrative…they don’t have language and that impedes one from telling a story.”

Outside of fiction, Atwood has also written about debt. Her non-fiction book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth came from her 2008 Massey Lectures. Not surprisingly, her interest in debt began in from her study of Victorian Literature. In an interview with Suzanne Ellis, CityLine “Margaret Atwood On Payback And The Concept Of Debt”  Atwood discussed how the Victorian stories that are on the surface about love and romance are really all about financial arrangements:

“In [Jane Austen’s] Sense and Sensibility, Marianne can’t marry the love of her life because he needs to marry a rich person. He doesn’t have any money. She’s devastated by that and gets a bad cold,” Atwood muses. “You start following the money in these novels and it takes you to the most amazing places. Where did Heathcliff get the money that he uses to buy Wuthering Heights, or I should say to gamble the owner of it out of it? How does he do that? We’re not quite sure but it’s something pretty shady.”

The book was made into a documentary and released in the spring of 2012. The New York Times critic A.O. Scott opens his film review with the premise of the documentary:

A glance at the headlines from Europe, the news from Washington or this month’s bills will confirm that we live in an age of debt. Debt, a concept at once straightforward and almost metaphysically complex, is a source of personal, national and global anxiety, and forms a link between the individual and the worldwide economic system.

While the film did not receive critical acclaim, Atwood’s ability to connect herself and link to the world through Twitter is often lauded.  She is an avid twitterer with 383,430 followers and over 15,000 tweets of her own. She links to political issues, comments on travels, and gives recipe advice:

Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 11.06.17 AM Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 11.07.07 AM Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 11.08.58 AM Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 11.09.56 AM

She also is the inventor of the “long pen”, a device that allows her to attend book signings from distances and sign books “virtually”. When she is tired of traveling to sign books, she can now meet her adoring public in virtual space and provide them with an authentic signature. Fortunately, I saw her before the “long pen” at a Barnes and Noble reading/book signing for her short story collection Moral Disorder. She was amazingly articulate; in the 40 minute talk, she never hesitated or once said “um”.

And just when you thought that Atwood could not be more accomplished, she starred in a video explaining “How to Stop a Hockey Puck” for the comedian reporter Rick Mercer. I put the video below. (Too bad her “Dance Party Video” was removed from YOUTube for copyright violations.)

So, on this International Woman’s Day, let’s hear a cheer for Margaret Atwood!

She writes. She tweets. She scores!

The Giver-

July 8, 2011 — Leave a comment

If there is a core text for middle school students, then Lois Lowry’s The Giver is high up on the list; our students read The Giver in Grade 7. This novel follows  Jonas, who receives his life assignment at the age of 12 as the community’s “memory keeper”, a position that requires him to accept serious responsibilities. Jonas is able to experience a wide range of emotions that his community has suppressed in others; he feels joy, despair, terror and can see colors that others cannot. Jonas escapes the community in order to save the life of his baby “brother” Gabriel, and the last pages of the novel find the pair in the snow facing an uncertain future.

Lowry confronts the reader with uncomfortable situations, and many middle school students do not enjoy the book, but they do remember the book. I can use references to Jonas and his community throughout high school, and students will make connections to The Giver in their responses to literature.

The novel was first published in 1993 and is usually categorized as science fiction. A more appropriate category would be dystopia. The popularity of the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins has highlighted this growing trend in YA literature; other dystopic visions of the future that I have been looking to include on our classroom shelves include:
Feed (2002) by M. T. Anderson,
Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro,
Uglies (2005) by Scott Westerfeld (and other books Pretties, Specials, Peeps)
The Maze Runner (2009) by James Dashner

There are always used copies of The Giver in the children’s sections at book sales. I have never found the book mistakenly shelved with adult books; apparently, everyone is familiar enough with the book to know where to place a copy. These copies are usually pretty worn- some have highlighted text, others show “backpack” abuse. I will purchase most of these copies so that we have extra copies for students to write in or maybe create “found poetry” with pages from a disassembled text. Occasionally, I will come across a newer copy to add. Since children’s books are generally $.50 or half the cost of an adult trade paperback, I am not overspending when I get these copies.

The cover has not changed since the book’s first printing, except to add the Newberry Award medallion to the upper right corner. The old man’s face and torn left corner are evocative of the novel’s themes. Here is a cover students can write about! The novel’s size is a mixed blessing- small enough not to intimidate the reader, but also small enough to be lost in a pile of used books. I often have to dig into piles of children’s books to find a copy.

Currently the book retails for $6.99.

The Giver will remain as a core text for our 7th graders. This is one of the books Wamogo middle school students who have come from three different elementary schools from three different towns will share together. Lowry’s novel marks a similar “coming of age”; as 7th graders, our students also have new responsibilities. Many of our students feel at times that middle school is a dystopia (a police state?), and they share these connections and their ideas of their future when they read this text. Many students may not enjoy the book, but all students keep memories of The Giver.