I start here with one of two blog posts on teaching and reading the apocalypse during a moment when dystopia, which our class so often joked about in those innocent days of January and February, became the stuff of our daily lives.
Part I (below) sketches out the initial seven weeks of a class on dystopic fiction and film, including a plethora of good reads and Netflix possibilities to entertain you in this era of social distancing.
Part Two (coming next week) will consider the last seven weeks after the rise of Covid-19 and center several M.A. students’ thoughts on what it means to journal through a pandemic, to keep, as it were, a plague diary.
“There’s no crying in the apocalypse!” I joked in one of my December 2019 emails prepping students for the work that would be due on the first day of my spring graduate class, ENGL 745 “Welcome to the Apocalypse.” Turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
We began that first January 2020 class with this icebreaker: “If you HAD to pick an apocalypse — what kind would it be? Who would you want with you — what one person and why? What food would you miss the most?” Their answers were wide-ranging and funny — at least one person maintaining they would not, under any circumstances, survive the apocalypse, comparing themselves to the bit actor killed in the first five minutes of every apocalypse flick. Some chose celebrities to apocalypse with — the Rock (Dwayne Johnson), Michonne (Danai Gurira) from The Walking Dead, Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill) from The Witcher — a Polish American sci-fi drama many of us had recently binged. Others picked a fabulous array of brothers, sisters, parents, and kick-ass best friends to get them through the troubled future. Pizza, coffee, and chicken wings — in no particular order, won for most-missed foods. Notably, no one forecast a forthcoming toilet paper shortage or envisioned an apocalypse marked by a deep yearning for yeast.
In terms of texts, Week One had us looking at a very real apocalypse — the Kaw nation’s removal from the land in and around Manhattan, Kansas — alongside Phillip K. Dick’s classic 1968 sci-fi novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and both Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner and director Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 expansion Blade Runner: 2049, dystopias all. Our conversation centered on how we define apocalypse, especially given its place as one of the most popular literary and film genres in recent years. Importantly, students posed what would become a central question of the semester: What does it mean to be human?
This question continued to percolate in “This Week in the Apocalypse,” our weekly class starters. In these informal presentations, volunteers shared how and where the class spilled into our daily lives. We discussed things like the Doomsday Clock, which moved closest to midnight it’s ever been the week class began; the healthcare crisis, paying particular attention to the cost of insulin and watching a fantastic segment on Medicare from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight; Star Trek’s forays into dystopia; the rise of white nationalism in the U.S.; and Lady Gaga’s new spec fic music video Stupid Love along with the many memes that posit the end of humanity. Turns out, dystopic possibilities filled our daily lives.
We also, of course, talked in several classes about a new virus making headlines; the first case of Covid-19 was announced by the CDC two days prior to the start of our class.
We met in-person each Thursday for seven weeks before we left for spring break and the pandemic changed our lives. During those three-hour classes, we built community by having intense discussions about readings, films, and real-world events and, as well, by sharing excellent snacks — it turns out K-State students can bake and buy good chips like nobody’s business. Further, our forays into the apocalypse around us exceeded the classroom boundaries. Thus in those early weeks — what we might now call the “good old days” of unfettered community interaction — we visited the Beach Museum of Art’s installation Field Station IV: A Journey through Time, Space, and Beyond and subsequently attended the related panel entitled “Art and Science in the Anthropocene Age” that included the artist, Charles Lindsay, an art historian, a philosopher, a physics professor, and an English professor who sometimes teaches sci-fi (me).
Meanwhile, we read feminist sci-fi/fantasy by Ursula LeGuin and powerful rebuttals by N.K. Jemisin alongside Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road. In film, we jumped from contemporary film — The Hunger Games — back to the relentlessly white, homonormative zombie pandemic Last Man on Earth (1964), starring Vincent Price, and the first remake, the fabulously trippy 1971 Charlton Heston film Omega Man that clumsily infuses late 1960s/early 1970s racial politics into a post-atomic, post-zombie-pandemic narrative. Markedly, the most recent iteration of these films — class favorite I Am Legend (2007) — was the first of the movie remakes to cast a person of color as the lead: Will Smith, of course. (Nota bene: Looking at 2014, only 8% of films had a protagonist of color; six of those were Will Smith.) These iterations of dystopia brought us to wrestle with the history of the genre and, particularly, to ask: What does it means to whitewash the future?
In his introduction to his edited collection Coloring Science Fiction, one of our many critical readings for the class, Isiah Lavender argues:
Even if race and the color line are the work of humans, they are political realities given value by SF writers that must now be reconsidered and reinterpreted by present generations of SF scholars. To transcend various repetitions of the color line—black, red, and brown—we must be conscious of these repetitions. Such a consciousness can be acquired only by exploring the possible worlds of SF and lifting blacks, indigenous peoples, and Latinos out from the background of this historically white genre. (6)
Our last two classes pre-lockdown began our consideration of Lavender’s contentions in earnest. We read Omar el Akkad’s brutal and brilliant novel, American War, which posits a fictional world in which the U.S. stages a second civil war over post-peak oil policies in the midst of drought, famine, and radical changes to landmass that follow on the heels of climate change. This cli-fi novel turns on the fact that the book is narrated by the nephew of a character, who…wait for it… unloosed a plague in the form of a rapidly spreading virus that wiped millions from the face of the planet. While racial politics are understated in el Akkad’s text, our conversations attended to what Lavender calls “repetitions” of representation. As a result, these expanded iterations of dystopic fiction and film allowed us to continue to grapple with what it means to be human while we further considered who gets to craft those definitions. In other words: Who chooses and publishes these books, produces and casts these films, decides what the future looks like for popular audiences?
The vibrant body of literature, art, film, and scholarship deemed Afrofuturisms grounded that inquiry, including N.K. Jemisin’s brilliant short story collection, How Long til Black Future Month?, Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, and the movies Black Panther and Get Out. (The latter film would not always be placed within the genre of Afrofuturisms, though arguments could be made, were there but blog posts enough and time, for that placement.) Dread Nation, a YA dystopic novel that offers an alternate version of the past rather than speculating about the future, imagines a virus outbreak that turns people into “shamblers” (aka zombies) and interrupts the U.S. Civil War. In this wickedly funny, feminist text — another class fav — young Black girls are put into boarding schools, taught to fight, and subsequently forced to put their lives on the line for the white upper class. Besides being a page-turner, the novel uses dystopia to ask smart questions of race, region, systemic oppression, and friendship. The second half of the book moves to a white settlement in Kansas, and it was there we found ourselves as we headed into spring break and news of the novel coronavirus began to multiply.
For K-State, as most of you know, spring break marked not only the moment the NBA cancelled its season, but also when the university announced an extension of break by a week. This decision gave instructors extra time to begin the move to online classes, allowed many students time to get where they needed — if not necessarily where they wanted — to be, and gave the administration time to start to craft university policies for a pandemic. It was a moment when news headlines suddenly mirrored those in the many disaster films and novels we’d been reading and questions we’d posed seemed eerily relevant.
Dystopia was no longer outside — it was all around us.
Stay tuned for Part II of “On Teaching and Reading the Apocalypse . . . in the Apocalypse,” in which my students write Plague Diaries and contemplate how and where fact follows fiction.
— Lisa Tatonetti, Professor