Syllabus: Dystopian Literature and the Moral Imagination

SEWL 1020-172R: “Dystopian Literature and the Moral Imagination”

Instructor: Dr. Bradley Birzer (

Class time: MWF: 10-10:50AM

Office hours: Tuesday, 9:30-1:00, and by appointment (Woodbury 302)

Autumn 2014


Required Reading

  • Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
  • George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
  • Walter Miller, Canticle for Leibowitz
  • Margaret Atwood, Handmaid’s Tale
  • Suzanne Collins, Hunger Games
  • Plus additional handouts (probably via email or dropbox)



Utilizing lecture as well as discussion, this course will explore the rise and power (and faults) of twentieth-century dystopian literature. In particular, we’ll explore the power of imagination, the essence of words and language, the fears of conformity, the deadliness of ideologies (right, left, capitalist, communist, fascist) and fundamentalisms, the dignity and complexity of the human person; and the realities of equality and hierarchy in the social as well as the political spheres of life . Though we 21st-century types throw around the term “dystopia” in a relatively easy fashion, it did not enter the English language with any steadiness until 1952. Prior to this, some had spoken of false utopias, broken utopians, dark utopias, or, most frequently, cacotopias. For our purposes, then, we must ask why the concept and genre (possibly a sub-genre of science fiction; this is debatable) came into common usage in the second half of the twentieth century.   The books assigned will consider four types of dystopias: a managerial capitalist/socialist one; a fascistic/communist one; a post-apocalyptic one; and a Puritan one. I will also lecture on Plato, Augustine, Thomas More, and Francis Bacon; the French Revolution; the rise of Marxism, Darwinism (social and biological), and Freudianism as “progress”; fascism and futurism; eugenics and racialism; and fabulism in twentieth-century literature. We will also discuss dystopia in film, computer games, and graphic novels.



  • Five Book Response Papers (one per book, 1000-1200 words each): 50% total
  • Final exam: 30%
  • Participation and discussion: 20%


Response papers

Each of your five response papers should be 1,000-1,200 words in length. As to formatting, please use a reasonable 12-point font, one-inch margins, and footnotes. Additionally, please double space the paper. Feel free to use published book reviews as sources. Plagiarism (the use of another’s work without proper recognition/attribution) will result in an immediate F for the paper. I encourage you to own a real dictionary and thesaurus—not just an e-version. As to computer programs/apps, I suggest Endnote as the best for bibliographical reference and formatting, and Scrivener as the best writing program.



Here’s hoping you WANT to attend, of course. Sewall language on the matter (with which I concur): “You may miss only 7 class periods in a MWF class.  Upon your 8th absence, you will automatically fail the course.  If there are extenuating circumstances (e.g. hospitalization or extended illness), they will be taken into account on a case-by-case basis in implementing the automatic failure provision, providing that you can present evidence/documentation.”


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