In August 2019, I was asked to lead a course on dystopian fiction for spring semester 2020 at Stony Brook University’s MFA program in creative writing, where I’ve been teaching for many years. This seemed at the time like an exciting opportunity to further explore a genre that has always fascinated me.
Dystopian fiction is a warning bell tolling in the distance, urging us to pay attention, to beware, to curtail our greed, our arrogance, our zealotry, or else the future of the planet may look something like the oppressed, ravaged worlds that are conjured to life in many of these novels.
We spent the first seven weeks of the course reading and discussing the rise and fall of vast empires, nuclear holocausts, and oppressive dictatorships in imagined societies. My left-of-center leanings were no secret to my four young graduate students, although I attempted to stay away from current politics, no easy task. I tried a humanitarian approach, speaking generally about the loss of human and civil rights in the novels we discussed, and making comparisons to situations in our world today and in our past.
We started the semester with Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, the grandfather of all modern dystopian novels. We was written in Russia in 1920-21 and paints a satirical and deeply disturbing portrait of a future under a Soviet-style communist regime. George Orwell took much of the plot and world-building of 1984 from Zamyatin, as did Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. Kurt Vonnegut often mentioned We as one of his early influences. My four students, all in their early- to mid-twenties, had not read it, nor had they heard of Zamyatin, but those who had read 1984 and Brave New World were stunned by the similarities.
Between the end of January and early March, as we read and discussed Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, among others, the spread of the novel coronavirus grew more and more dire: high casualties in Italy, France, and Spain and, by February, reports of hotspots in Washington state, California, and New York.
By the second week of March, out in Southold, on the North Fork of Long Island where I was staying, COVID-19 had spread through the community at alarming speed. Riverheadlocal.com stated, “Southold Town’s confirmed coronavirus cases were the highest among every town in Suffolk County on a case-per-thousand basis and more than double the rate in the county as a whole.”
On Stony Brook’s Southampton campus, not far from Southold, where I was teaching my seminar, the mostly empty dorms were being used to quarantine SUNY students returning from semesters abroad.
On Tuesday, March 10, I watched the president insist, on national television, that “We’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” I left the house feeling like I was living through a Vonnegut novel, where foolish bureaucrats make the rules, and the rules make no applicable sense in the real world.
Our next book was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale where, in the near future, following a catastrophic drop in the birthrate, a repressive Christian fundamentalist theocracy has overthrown the U.S. government. Women have lost their human and civil rights and those who are deemed “subversive,” but who can still bear children, are enslaved as reproductive chattel. The first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale was in the early 1980s. I found the novel thoughtful, entertaining, and improbable. Even under Reagan, I never for a moment considered a government takeover by the Christian far right a possibility because I had faith in the Constitution. Reading Atwood again now was profoundly unsettling.
I walked into class on Thursday afternoon to find my students waiting for me in total silence, not chatting and laughing like they normally were. Their faces wore expectant, gloomy expressions. I had the horrifying realization that within a matter of weeks, this course had taken a turn from speculative fiction to not-so-speculative at all.
“Please tell me the dystopian world we live in is a simulation. Please tell me it’s only a coincidence that I took a dystopian literature class as the world progressively becomes a dystopia. Please tell me that lie-swallowing Americans that lick the boots of the government will realize the indescribable insanity of blind obedience.”
— from “Isolation,” an essay by MFA candidate Jen Cooper
I sat down in my chair, took a deep breath, and asked them to pause for a minute to consider the bizarre circumstances that found us sitting here in this class, in the middle of the worst national crisis our country has faced since World War II. Did any of them note any parallels between the fictitious Gilead and our new reality in the United States?
There were parallels, they agreed. Jen, a non-binary LGBTQ activist, said they felt like they’d been living through The Handmaid’s Tale since the 2016 election.
McKenzie chimed in; she was also disturbed by the current rise of Christian fundamentalism in our nation, as well as the racism and anti-Semitism brought about by the resurgence of the White Supremacist movement. A movement that, in every important way, shares the same values as the fascist theocratic government in The Handmaid’s Tale.
I wanted to calm their fears. This would be our last meeting before spring break. I urged them to be vigilant, to follow the CDC’s directives, to watch the news, and to check the sources.
In creative writing programs, the line between our public and private lives is so thin it sometimes frays. I shared that I was still planning to leave for California the next Friday. I was very worried for my daughter, who’d just graduated from college and was alone in our new home; she didn’t have a driver’s license and if we truly went into some kind of major lockdown, she would be stranded. I told them how my daughter and I had gone through a period of bitter fighting, followed by alienation, when our family life came to a crashing end with her father’s hospitalization for treatment-resistant depression, and his suicide two years ago. Buying this house together in San Diego had been an act of faith, and we were still on tenuous ground.
They nodded in silence. We didn’t know then that we would never meet in person again.
“As each week of quarantine passed and people rioted to open up the country, flooded the beaches without masks or social distance, and the government sent bailout checks to the industries chiefly responsible for cultivating and spreading the disease, it became even more clear that the dystopian blueprints were right.”
— from “Dystopian Thoughts,” an essay by MFA candidate Jimmy Hytner
On Thursday, March 12, a state of emergency was declared for Southold Township. I agonized over my decision to fly. A good friend drove me to JFK on March 13. In the airport and on the plane I was so concerned that I might unknowingly be carrying the virus that I wore a surgical mask and gloves and disinfected my seat, tray table, and armrests with Clorox wipes. If I’d learned anything from teaching dystopian fiction, it was to listen for that distant tolling bell. I did everything I could to protect others, as well as myself.
On March 19, a statewide shelter at home order was decreed for California. The next day, Stony Brook announced that all courses would resume online and remain virtual for the rest of the semester.
I mastered Zoom, and our weekly discussions resumed. No one ever showed up late; no one shirked the work. Cal, one of the two young men, contracted COVID-19 and was very sick, yet he missed only one class.
Of all our discussions, Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? stands out, the only novel chosen by class vote. By that day, April 28, COVID-19 cases in the U.S. had reached 981,134, with 50,327 fatalities. Out walking our dog that morning, I ran into a neighbor, a friendly retired navy officer. When he saw my terrified expression, he scoffed. The flu kills more people, he said, and he wasn’t going to change his life for this B.S.
Dick’s novel describes a poisoned Earth, blown to ashes by World War Terminus. Almost all animal life has perished. Owning a real live animal becomes every human’s deepest desire. The rich have fled to Mars and are trying to rebuild society in a gravely inhospitable climate. They create androids to do the dirty work. Androids are slaves, and are treated as such. But some androids – smarter, stronger, more resilient – revolt and flee to Earth to try to pass as humans in order to live free.
I posed to my students this question: If sexual intercourse with androids is illegal, why are they given sexual organs?
Human arrogance, they said. Human greed.
“Is there a sensation more rooted in the physical than the struggle for breath? Is there a more poignant reminder to our self-important minds that they are reliant on the more base organs for life?”
— from “Flesh and Spirit,” an essay by MFA candidate Cal Urycki
The bounty hunter who is charged with annihilating the escaped androids carries around an empathy test, the only way to prove an android is not human. But the test is fallible. Humans sometimes fail the test. So how can he be certain he’s killing an android and not a human?
But, more importantly, I asked, do the androids deserve to be exterminated?
We were divided. Jen and I felt the androids had as much right to live as the humans, the stupid, arrogant humans who blew up their own planet over a disagreement of … what? Principles? Politics? McKenzie wanted to problem-solve for a third solution, neither annihilation nor coexistence, but one in which humans took responsibility for the sentient beings they created. But the other two – Jimmy and Cal – felt the androids were a danger, were not human and, therefore, should be exterminated.
Cal’s position was that the androids were biologically not human: They posed a threat to humanity and must be neutralized. But I identified with the androids. I grew up with emotional abuse at the hands of a narcissistic parent. I’d felt dehumanized, completely controlled by a power beyond my control.
I posed more questions. Besides biologically, how are the androids less than human?
They don’t feel empathy, they replied.
But do they truly lack empathy? I countered. They were not programmed for empathy, yet they develop empathy – even love – for each other. Doesn’t that make them sentient beings?
What makes us human, in the end? I asked. Are the humans in the novel capable of empathy toward each other?
A long silence ensued.
I called a short break and went downstairs to regroup. My daughter was watching Rachel Maddow, who was in tears over the lack of personal protective equipment and available tests for front-line workers. Maddow, her voice shaking, read the CDC’s updated “recommendations” for the U.S. meat processing plants, whose workers were being forced to return to their jobs, despite an explosion of cases among them. Damn, I thought, now we can’t even trust the CDC.
I felt such rage and helplessness I started crying. My daughter got up and came to hug me. “If someone had told me four years ago that we were going to have a pandemic and you and I would voluntarily go into lockdown together, I never would’ve believed it. I’m so glad you’re here, Mom.”
I mentioned our class argument over the fate of the androids in Dick’s novel. What did she think, did the androids deserve to live?
“Of course the androids deserve to live,” she said.
I’d taken her to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. when she was in 8th grade. Her class was going there soon on a field trip, and I didn’t want her to see it for the first time with anyone but me. When we got to the Hall of Heroes, at the very end of the exhibit, she looked around and asked, “Why didn’t more people do something?”
Because they had families, and they were scared, I told her.
“Would you have risked your life?” she asked. I told her that, when I’d been single, or even married, I most certainly would have, but now, having a child, I wasn’t so sure.
She replied that she hoped I would risk her life to take a stand.
If disaster were to affect my world, I believed I would be the boy from The Road: the one who gives a dying man a can of fruit, even when it might mean his own starvation, the one who still believes a spaceship might save them all, the one who forgives a deadly thief. I would be the one with hope. Hope would guide my actions. I was wrong.
— from “The Boy,” an essay by MFA candidate McKenzie Watterson
Now, I blew my nose, wiped my eyes, and went back upstairs to rejoin my Zoom class.
“My daughter thinks the androids deserve to live,” I told my students. Jen pumped their fist.
I finally broke down and got political. To our present government, I said, every front line worker, every elder, every disenfranchised minority, every person with a pre-existing condition, could be an android in Phillip K. Dick’s novel. All expendable. Acceptable collateral damage, as in a war. But this pandemic is not a war and, with proper leadership, could have been avoided.
We continued our discussion, but no one’s position shifted on the fate of the androids. In closing, I pointed out that exceptional books like this one are eternal, because they live in that gray area between right and wrong, good and bad, and leave it up to the reader to decide.
Exhausted, I took our dog out for a walk along the protected wetlands that stretch for miles beyond our house. The California daisies were in full bloom along the path, a riot of yellow as far as the eye could see. A white tornado of Foster’s terns circled overhead, the black spot on their faces still visible against the darkening sky. For them, little had changed.
At that moment the bugle “Recall” sounded from the S.E.A.L. training base across the marsh. Every day since the lockdown, my daughter and I pause at sunset to hear the “Recall,” such a consistent, paternal reminder that life goes on.
But the walking path and the main road in the distance, usually jammed at this hour, were empty and the bugle sounded forlorn. All I could do was mutter under my breath, “My God, please help us fix this before it’s too late.”
Editor’s Note: The MFA student essays, written as an assignment for the author’s dystopian fiction class, were used with permission. The students are:
- Jen Cooper is a MFA candidate in creative writing and literature at Stony Brook Southampton. They write about gender, sexuality, and disability. They have their bachelor’s in journalism and have been published in the Long Island Herald, The Osprey, and the Stony Brook Independent.
- Cal Urycki is a fiction writer and MFA candidate at Stony Brook University Southampton. His short stories and speculative fiction have appeared in Fever Dreams E-Zine and The Writing Disorder.
- Jimmy Hytner is pursuing his MFA at Stony Brook University. He is in the rewriting process of his fantasy novel, Of Swords and Shadows.
- McKenzie Watterson is a Montana-based writer and educator. She is an MFA candidate at Stony Brook Southampton. Her work with domestic violence survivors and with incarcerated teens inspires her writing.