A friend recently proposed an interesting exercise in hypothetical course design where one must select a single American novel for each decade of the 20th century to create a teachable arc for the century (and justify said choices).  Given my own interest in genre, I figured I’d adopt/adapt it for utopian/dystopian fiction (dropping the “American” requirement) to see what kind of survey of the genre I might teach (and what works I’d be willing to drop per only having one choice per decade).  The difficult part about conceptualizing this as an actual course is there is no way I would be able to teach this without starting with More’s Utopia and some other relevant earlier texts (Campanella? Bellamy and Morris? Wells? etc.) or doing a bunch of work up front introducing literary utopias via describing those works that lead up to what is really the dystopian turn in the genre that takes place at the beginning of the 20th century.  Not that I couldn’t do the latter, but I’d much  rather have students at least read More to begin.

That problem aside, I’ve still tried to follow a structure that makes sense for how an actual course might play out: works build on previously read works to allow for connections to be made, I begin with shorter texts rather than hitting students with something big and hard to start, and finish with less time-intensive texts so that students in the midst of final papers and finals prep would hopefully still make time for them.

1900s: E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops”:  Part of me is arguing for H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia here, and I even picked  Jack London’s The Iron Heel as my 1900s novel in the original exercise.  However, Forster’s prescient story seems like a great starting point–especially for students living in this internet-saturated, information-on-demand era.  One could set it up in lecture by referencing it as response to Wells’s utopian works, which would allow for some background on the transition from utopian modes to a predominantly dystopian tendency (and this response to Wells’s influence is obviously an ongoing point in the texts that follow–maybe I would have to cheat and teach Wells too).

1910s: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland:  There’s not much else I could argue for in this decade.  Gilman’s book, while clunky at times, sets up a number of interesting questions for discussion and is actually mainly in the utopian mode (a rarity for the genre during the century).

1920s: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We:   As far as I’m concerned there’s no way to teach a course on utopia/dystopia without this book.  One of the two most important dystopian fictions written (along with the one from the 1930s).  I hate having to drop Fritz Lang’s Metropolis because I’d love to use a film early on (and film is obviously a theme in the text that follows), but this would take priority over that. I could also make a case for Franz Kafka’s The Trial, but Zamyatin is far more accessible to students and important to the genre.

1930s: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:  Do I even have to explain this?  No.

1940s: George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:  Sandwiched right in the middle of the “no-surprises” chunk of the class, obvious choice is obvious even if I think Huxley and Zamyatin’s books are superior.  This book is the most influential in terms of people thinking they know what it was about and citing it for all sorts of political purposes (often contrary to Orwell’s own politics).

1950s: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:  This would be roughly the middle of the term, so something relatively easy and brief is called for, I think.  I can’t imagine teaching this without using the author’s own comments on the public response to the book: he seriously didn’t think the book was primarily about censorship?  Vonnegut’s Player Piano would be my second choice here.

1960s: John Christopher’s The White MountainsThe genre is more thick with possible titles once we hit this decade, and I have a soft spot for Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, but I think that it is wise to introduce the YA dystopia that is now the thing in YA lit. with one of the standout, best-sellers from the past.  Having reread this recently, I can’t say I love it as much as I recall loving it as a boy, but the adventure-driven plot, with its medieval furniture and vaguely defined/understood bad guys (tripods? what?) would work make for an interesting teaching text.  The relative lack of political insight or how things work day-to-day in this world is a stark contrast to the more full explained (realized?) texts that preceded it on this list.

1970s:  Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed:    The decade is also filled with works fitting the genre, and  even just works by UKL fitting the genre (I can’t believe I’m saying I’d drop “Omelas,” because I’d probably smuggle that in too).  This is a must-read, and it is a good way to introduce the possibly useful category of “critical utopia” as defined by Tom Moylan (I’m still not sold on its usefulness myself).  Honorable mention to Callenbach’s Ecotopia, John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up, and Delany’s Triton.

1980s: Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta: If given the choice, I’d never again teach a contemporary fiction course without at least one comic (and one film) as texts.  While I hate to omit Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, this fits perfectly and lets me get on my soapbox about how awesome the maligned genre of comics is (no, it’s not really a “graphic novel,” either).

1990s: Lois Lowry’s The Giver: My least stable pick, especially since it means tossing Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which I’ve had great success teaching, and Ellis and Robertson’s Transmetropolitan, which I really want to teach.  My reasoning here is threefold: 1. It allows for a continuation of thinking about the YA dystopia subgenre and how it may or may not differ from “adult” dystopias.  2. It actually functions in the utopian mode quite a bit (rare for a work this late in the century) and one can see how and why the society in question is a desirable one to live in.  3. The open, uncertain ending infuriates readers and is great for prompting discussion (and it drives some of them to pick up the 2 solid follow-up books in the same story-world).

2000s: Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games:  I’m cheating and moving beyond the 20th century, but there’s nothing else from this decade that would work as well as this.  It has the benefit of being YA and action-driven, which makes it a fast read for the end of a term.

2010s:  The Hunger Games (film):  I like to pair at least one book with a film adaptation, and this is an obvious choice.   I’ve also found teaching a film at the end of the term is well-received and will often improve what can be a painful last week of little student participation.  It’s also a solid film that many probably already saw.  The pairing of book with film allows for interesting discussions of the difference in mediums and the decisions made by directors/screenwriters/etc to omit or change parts from the book, and this can be very fruitful.  Honorable mention to  Julianna Baggott’s Pure  and Bacigalupi’s Shipbreaker.

I’m sure my positions on some of these might change down the road.  I’d be curious if anyone else out there has considered how they might structure such a course (and what they’d include); and I’d be interested in hearing of works others would teach that I’ve omitted (or haven’t read yet).

  1. owl says:

    I would have very much enjoyed taking this class–and I vote that you do include More, even if it’s just selections. I imagine it could work well part way through, perhaps in conjunction with Orwell, as a way of challenging the discussion.

    Funny, I just finally started _The Dispossessed_ yesterday; it’s been waiting in my stack for a while. And I picked up _Catching Fire_ today, and the lovely _V for Vendetta_ comic was displayed right beside it.

    I do find that utopia as a genre quickly becomes hard to pin down, not only for the crossover into dystopia, but also for the question of totalization: at what does a sub- or anti-society constitute a utopia? Also, must the genre involve speculative elements? What about works associated with real life? Can a fiction based on a communal society that considers itself a utopia, for example, fit the genre?

    • nightwork says:


      If I ever had the chance to teach a class like this, I’d certainly break the rules of this exercise and teach More (at least book two), and likely excerpts from Cavendish, Campanella, Bellamy, and Morris. I’d probably also toss in at least one Wells book (though not sure which one if picking both sides of the arbitrary 1900 date I’m working from here). I’d also slip in more films and short stories, and have a rudimentary list of “antecedents” of utopia that I’d like to insert (though this is turning into a grad seminar reading load at that point).

      I like your points and questions on the genre. My own take on the fiction/based on real life question is one of practicality directly related to working on a dissertation on this, and it is a bit arbitrary and limiting. For the sake of circumscribing what I need to know to stay fully engaged with the genre as defined in my opening chapter, I only include works operating in a decidedly fictional manner (following Sargent’s lead in the “Intro” to his bibliography of utopian fiction, but a bit more rigidly than he). Which is not to say a reality-based fiction is excluded from the genre by default, but these works aren’t common or integral enough in my experience to expand the circle of my consideration (for the sake of dissertation and teaching) at the moment.

      On the other hand, I strongly support (and would love to develop) a course on utopia that looks at obviously fictional utopias and their impacts on society (including the kind of movements things like News from Nowhere and Ecotopia engendered) alongside reality-based utopian writings about real experiments in alternate ways of living and social design/movements I’m just too behind on reading in the latter to even consider it at this moment in time.

  2. owl says:

    I can appreciate the need for rigidly defined terms. I was led to utopia through research on the back-to-the-land movement on the west coast (I was working on Mark Vonnegut’s _The Eden Express_), very much a niche in utopian studies. The question of genre for me is indeed a slippery one within the field, and I’m usually more organized by the notion of the utopian impulse. However, the genre’s genealogy is of course core to all of that.

    I’m aware of most of the material you mention in your posts, and am always excited to see a reference new to me. I’m surprised I haven’t yet encountered _The Utopia Reader_ before, so thank you! If you ever wanted to post a reading list I would pretty much gobble it up . . .