I was at my college freshman orientation flipping through the course catalogue when a class name caught my eye: Brave New World. The class description, which included an incredible reading list and the phrase "frank and open discussions" intrigued and thrilled me as a book nerd, but I had no idea then that taking a dystopian literature class in college would help prepare me for 2017.
If it is still being offered today, I imagine the dystopian fiction-centered comparative literature class I fell in love with my first year at college is probably among the most popular course offerings. Whether they be in the media, in politics, or just someone in your neighborhood, people have been quick to draw parallels between some of the most famous dystopian worlds from books and the current state of affairs. The truth is, many of the unthinkable fictional storylines seem to be dangerously close to playing out in real life: Like in 1984, facts are being ignored or all together changed. The growing restrictions on women's rights is startlingly reminiscent of the The Handmaid's Tale. The government's increasing hold on reproduction rights isn't that far off from the controlled sexual activity in Brave New World.
Now, standing in the shadow of an already dark 2017, I can see clearly see the significance of these dystopian fictions and my American reality, but in 2008 when I enrolled in the course my first semester freshman year, it wasn't because I felt it was timely. In fact, at the time I signed up for the class, I was feeling almost utopian, not dystopian: I was voting for the first time ever in a presidential election, and the hope of the Obama/Biden campaign was infectious and impossible to ignore. To me, things were looking brighter, not darker, so I didn't take the class to prepare me for what I thought would be impending doom down the line. I simply took the class because I was considering a major in English instead of journalism (which I ended up pursuing) and because the Aldous Huxley book was a favorite of mine in high school.
A part lecture, part discussion, my Brave New World class was unique and challenging in ways I could have never expected. It was one of my first college experiences, and back then, it gave me a taste of the power studying, reading, and open discussion could give a young, developing student. Back then, I loved immersing myself in the story and speaking my mind about what I thought it meant. Now, in 2017, I can say I'm grateful I signed up for it, because it helped prepare me for today's reality in ways I could never expect.
1It taught me to question everything.
If you've ever read a dystopian novel, than you know it can make you start to see your world differently. But read an entire semester's worth of dystopian novels like The Handmaid's Tale, The Trial, and 1984, and you'll start to question everything.
My experience reading these stories, discussing their themes, and exploring their parallels to history and real life taught me to ask real questions about things happening around me. It pushed me to not simply accept the stories being told to me, but to challenge ideas and find my own truths. Because the truth is never as simple as it seems.
2I learned the dangers of staying silent.
Whether it be an injustice in my government or the wrongdoing of a peer or as part of the discussion requirement of the course, my dystopian fiction class taught me something I've never forgotten: speak up and speak out. The compliant populations of the books we read were stark reminders that unless someone is willing to stand up to the status quo, we are all in danger of falling victim to our own compliance and blindness. If we don't make out own voices heard, who will be responsible for breaking the silence?
3I was forced to examine my own privilege.
From A Scanner Darkly to Brave New World, there were more than one instance that I came face to face with privilege when reading, whether it was that of the color-coded class system of Aldous Huxley's work or the poor and drug-addicted masses in Philip K. Dick's dystopia.
In reading about the deep divides between these fictional people, I learned to look at the existing divides around me caused by race, class, ability, sexual orientation, and gender. While it's true I could relate to many of the oppressed characters based on my experiences as a young woman, it was also true that, in many cases, I fell in a separate, more privileged category because of my race, class, sexuality, education, and more, and those stories made it impossible to ignore.
Extracting that information about myself through this course taught me to not only see my privilege for what it was, but to use that privilege to speak up for those who weren't granted the same. Which brings me to my next point...
4It ingrained in me the need to be an active participant in government.
I was enrolled in this dystopian fiction class in the fall of 2008, during the presidential election, the very first of which I could vote in. Between the buzzing hope of the potential first black president that was flowing across campus, and the constant reminder of what can happen when people chose not to participate in government I got in my dystopian lit class, it became very clear to me that voting wasn't an option, but an obligation. Following the election and diving further into the presidency-to-come and my lit class, it also became clear to me that voting wasn't enough. You had to show up every day.
My class taught me a lot, but one of it's main lessons was this: to truly have a government for the people, it has to be held accountable by the people. Otherwise, you wake up one day and wonder, like Offred, How did we let this happen?
5It continues to inspire me.
Among other controversial things, Elisabeth Moss, who plays Offred in the upcoming Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale, explained her role "not supposed to be a hero, and she falls into it and kind of does what she has to do to survive." While that may be the actress's take on the character I deem as one of my feminist icons, it's not the way I see her or the other moving, albeit many doomed, characters of my dystopian fiction class. I see each and every one of their stories as inspiration for standing up, speaking out, and dissenting, especially in 2017.
If my class taught me anything, it's that we can't afford to let 1984 become our reality.