By: Liz Keiper
There’s something entrancing about dystopian stories… I mean, who isn’t drawn in by a story about a futuristic society in crisis, a hero taking on the system, or the threat of either nuclear apocalypse, deadly disease, alien invasion, or AI omnipotence? And our students are no exception.
Dystopian stories are uniquely poised to both attract the attention of even the most reluctant readers while simultaneously drawing them into deep conversations about government, power, society, human nature, and our future. They have this way of getting to the good stuff of English class in a way that keeps the reader wanting more.
“Red Card” by S.L. Gilbow is a dystopian short story that I keep coming back to. It is set in the euphemistically-christened futuristic town of Merry Valley in which the government has contrived an interesting method of reducing crime. In Merry Valley, the government secretly and randomly circulates several red cards, the possession of which allows a citizen to shoot another citizen for any reason without penalty. Stumble upon someone attempting a crime? Shoot them. Annoyed with someone speeding? Shoot them. Can’t stand the gossiper in the grocery line? Shoot them. Of course, it doesn’t take a lot of mental acrobatics to see how this type of system would poison society from within.
I originally found “Red Card” in an anthology of dystopian short stories called Brave New Worlds, (though it can also be found in Red Card and Other Stories) and I taught it during my first year out of desperation when I got mono three weeks before my seniors graduated (true story). I’ve taught it a few times since between units or at the end of the year, but this year, I decided to preface it with a mini-unit on dystopias.
This year, I introduced my students to the concept of a “utopia” by showing them this news clip about a reality TV show that ran a few years ago called Utopia. The producers of the show handpicked a group of people with diametrically opposed worldviews, threw them into a commune, tasked them with creating a perfect society, and filmed what happened. As you can imagine… it didn’t go well (remember that book Lord of the Flies? Yeah, ‘nuf said).
I then asked my students to brainstorm in their table groups what it would take to make a perfect society. What kinds of rules would you have to put in place? How would you structure the government? Who would hold the power in society? How would you make sure that it stayed that way? Immediately, things became pretty heated as even the three or four students per table group could not agree on common rules that would improve society. When tables shared out with the class, there was even more debate. As students shared ideas about how they would “perfect” society, others quickly pointed out how their good intentions could go awry and actually create more problems than they would solve.
I then showed my students a Ted Ed video about dystopian fiction to show them how these ideas play out in stories. I also had them compete in table groups to list as many dystopian stories as they could—everything from novels to TV shows or movies to video games. This helped my students see some of their favorite stories in a new light; The Hunger Games isn’t just an exciting action flick—it’s a poignant statement about government, society, and power.
This became an excellent bridge into deepening the conversation about dystopian stories and why they are important. In his introduction to the book Brave New Worlds, editor John Joseph Adams says,
“Many societies in fiction are depicted as utopias when in fact they are dystopias; like angels and demons, the two are sides of the same coin. This seemingly paradoxical situation can arise because, in a dystopia, the society often gives up A in exchange for B, but the benefit of B blinds the society to the loss of A; it is often not until many years later that the loss of A is truly felt, and the citizens come to realize that the world they once thought acceptable (or even ideal) is not the world they thought it was. That’s part of what is so compelling—and insidious—about dystopian fiction: the idea that you could be living in a dystopia and not even know it.”
This idea of giving up one thing in exchange for something perceived as better only to find that the trade off was not worth it helps students tremendously in understanding the point that an author of dystopian fiction is trying to communicate.
“Red Card” keeps students on the edge of their seats through the engaging story, intriguing characters, and plot twists (no spoilers here—go read it for yourself!) But it also provides a springboard to analysis. At the end of the story, I had my students do a five-sentence brainstorm answering these questions which was then followed by a share-out discussion:
- What do you think is a theme or point of the story? Explain why you think that is a point that the author was trying to get across to you.
- What makes this story a dystopia? Explain how the government in this story was trying to make society better but they actually end up making society worse.
- What has society lost in this story? In other words, why would living in this society be horrible?
- What do you think that the author was trying to say about our society today through this story?
Many students brought up the pressure that one would feel in this society to be fake—how one could never have deep, true relationships because relationships inherently involve conflict, and that is what everyone in Merry Valley is trying to avoid out of fear of being shot. One group said that they felt that trust was what is most lost in this society, and how they felt that the author was trying to show how stable societies must be built upon trust. Another brought up Linda’s purchase of Miracle Madness and how that shows her feelings of “dirtiness” and guilt after the murder and that the author wanted to show that deep down, humans will always have an inherent sense of the value of human life even if society tries to dehumanize others. I think that this story hits a particular chord in the hearts of teachers as we are regularly bombarded with the argument that society should arm teachers in schools because “more guns equals more safety”—in other words, teachers should become personal law enforcers akin to the citizens of Merry Valley. There are innumerable connections that can be made between this dystopia and America 2018.
So, are we, like the Merry Valley-ans of “Red Card,” actually living in a dystopia unawares? Read some dystopian literature with your students this year and let them decide.
Liz Keiper is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @KeiperET1.
WVCTE is wondering…
- What other dystopian novels or stories do you use to engage your students?
- What are other resources that could help your students grapple with the concept of “dystopia” and why are these stories important to read?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!