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.”


Seven Impale – Basking in the City of the Sun


sevenimpaleOne of the many strands of the golden hair of art rock is rooted in John Coltrane’s epic India, where the mighty ‘Trane and Eric Dolphy so caught the attention of a young Roger McGuinn that the Byrd lifted the song’s theme whole, filtering it through his twelve-string Ric and overlaying it on his band’s psych pop masterpiece, Eight Miles High. It was a sincere embrace, in spirit, of modal jazz, and helped launch rock into territories beyond the blues, to points further east, to lands that Coltrane remapped as an astral plane. Four years later and three after Coltrane’s death, the Soft Machine’s album Third became the purest rock expression, from what remains art rock’s best “fusion” record, of what Coltrane had been searching for. Side-long pieces of heavy fuzz bass, driving organ, wailing horns, and Robert Wyatt’s inimitable drumming. This kind of music, like Coltrane’s, is hard, riffy…

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A Love of Lingering: Salander’s STENDEC (2014)


A review of Salander, “STENDEC” (2014, independent release). Tracks: Pearls Upon a Crown; Book of Lies; Ever After; Hypothesis 11/8; Situation Disorientation; Controlled Flight Into Terrain; and Zeitgeist. Total time: 65 minutes.  Recommendation: HIGHEST; MUST OWN

Salander's second album of 2014: STENDEC.  Even better than the amazing first album. Salander’s second album of 2014: STENDEC. Even better than the amazing first album.

From the moment I first heard “CRASH COURSE FOR DESSERT” by Salander, I knew I not only loved the music, but I also knew I would love the musicians as well.

And, so it came to pass.

A rather significant part of my 2014 has been the sheer joy of getting to know Dave Smith, one of the two Daves who make up Salander. Sadly, I’ve not had the chance to get to know Dave Curnow, the other Dave, but I trust the judgment of the first Dave. So, per my respect of Dave, Dave must also be great.

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Take a big paper bag. Got one? Good – now toss in some 1970s King Crimson, some Frank Zappa, a bit of the 1969 ‘Crims, a healthy dose of their 80’s classic “Discipline“, a large amount of 90s-era ‘Crims, some Steely Dan, a bit of Toto, a very healthy quantity of the 1970s ECM catalog, a pinch of Edvard Grieg, a modicum of Steve Reich, a soupcon of Ulrich Schnauss’ textures, and some 50’s and 60s Blue Note Records for good measure. Got it all? Great. Now shake.

Keep shaking. Shake hard.

Right. That’s enough shaking. Now: Dump our the contents of your paper bag, and you should get the music of Seven Impale – “City Of The Sun”. Seven Impale - City Of The Sun

“WHO?” I heard someone in the back ask. 

Lest turn to their label, Karimsa Records, for some details:

SEVEN IMPALE consists of Stian Økland on vocals and guitars, Fredrik…

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Wings, Time, Everything

Peter C. Blum

A restaurant breakfast with musical background
That opening guitar for “Band on the Run”
Is a time-machine suddenly jerking me back
To Midwestern nineteen seventy four

I think of how impossibly serious I was
Back then, how bent on knowing precisely what
And whom to love, what and whom to hate
Everything rode on the knowing, though I clearly
Knew not the scope or depth of “everything”

Nor do I know many deeper things now

But I do know that “everything” seems too much
And it’s THESE things in all their particularity
That ride on what I know and do this moment


Songs are often time machines for me
But the time they lead back to, so indirectly
Is the remembering time, not remembered time

And when I write it again right after this stanza
It will look the same, but will not be the same



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Time Warp in Boulder and Clockwork Angels


Clockwork_Angels_01_Cover_BAfter spending my first afternoon at the University of Colorado, I stopped by Time Warp Comics (  As it turns out, Neil Peart, Kevin J. Anderson, and Nick Robles have been producing a six-part comic book series of Clockwork Angels.

The first three issues are out, and I was even able to purchase a signed (by Anderson) copy of issue 1.

And, equally important, I found out that several of the guys working at Time Warp are proggers.  They were also just–not surprisingly–fantastic guys (and a gal).  So, a huge thanks to Clayton, Garrett, Michael, and Georgia!

What a store.  I’ll certainly be stopping by again.

If you’re in Boulder, make sure you check out Time Warp.

Time Warp Comics, 3105 28th Street, Boulder, CO 80301. Time Warp Comics, 3105 28th Street, Boulder, CO 80301.

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Pillage and Plunder – The Show Must Go Wrong


pillageIf you have occasional fond thoughts of 90s art rock bands like the Monks of Doom you may also recall, while waxing nostalgic about the dear old 1990s, that there was a golden moment, after the commercial breakthrough of punk/grunge/indie rock in America but before the advent of Napster, when bands that had been toiling in musical nether regions for years finally had their moments in the sun.  The MoD were an offshoot of Camper Van Beethoven, the most palatably inventive American band of the 1980s and early 1990s, and like the great Camper Van approached American prog — delegated generally and unfortunately to the backwater of “jam” band categorization — with a firm belief that dumping every damn thing they could think of into the musical kettle and bringing it all to boil would work.  And it mostly did.  We’re talking about music that went deeply into the spirit…

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Freud Among the Great Books

Peter C. Blum

This essay first appeared on The Imaginative Conservative.  Thanks to Winston Elliott at TIC for permission to re-post it here. The graphic is by Hillsdale artist Bryan Springer.

Freud Among the Great Books:
Beyond a Monolithic “Freudian Theory”[1]

I find myself for a moment in the interesting position of not knowing whether what I have to say should be regarded as something long known and self-evident or something completely new and strange.  I suspect, however, it is the latter.  (Sigmund Freud)[2]

When Sigmund Freud wrote these sentences in the late 1930’s, he was referring specifically to some findings on a more focused topic.  They may be taken, however, as an expression of a thought which apparently occurred to him often through the course of his career.  I also take them as expressing my own sense about the impressionistic report that I intend to provide in what…

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Interview with Andrew Desiderio re: CU

cu buffaloI very much enjoyed working with Andrew on this.  A huge thanks to this fine GWU student.

CU-Boulder’s Announcement

Ok, I’m loving all of this.  The West!  Scholarship!  Cool Towns!

Going the extra mile for Aisles



One of the most challenging parts about being a prog reviewer is trying to ascertain how many times you need to listen to a particular album before you feel confident enough to deliver a balanced, fair appraisal of what it is all about.

I have never reviewed an album on the strength of one listen, no matter how discordant or lacking it may be. A lot of work goes into every release so I feel a sense of responsibility and respect for the artiste(s) in giving their work a thorough listening before committing my thoughts to type.

On the other hand, some of the most interesting albums are the ones where you feel no matter how many times you play them, there will be something more for you to discover the next time you give it a run-out. One example came in the post in the spring all the way…

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