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Beyond the world we know | Class #4, 2018

This week’s topic is “Beyond the World We Know” — a category that encompasses an extensive range of books, from magical realism to science fiction to the far-away places of other worlds. Jane Langton’s classic piece on fantasy from the 1973 Horn Book, “The Weak Place in the Cloth” provides an apt and lovely metaphor for the various ways that authors peek through, or break open, the barrier between reality and fantasy. Students will also read Kristin Cashore’s piece “Hot Dog, Katsa” on the pitfall-laden task of world-building.

  • Far Far Away by Tom McNeal
  • Feed by M. T. Anderson

Folktales and fairy tales have long been fodder for writers, who re-tell, borrow, subvert, and invert the original stories to make them their own. Tom McNeal bends the relationship between fairy tale and novel in a new way in his suspenseful tale Far Far Away. What do others think about the blending of new and old? What does the novel suggest about the role of folklore in both literature and our psyche?

Published in 2002, M.T. Anderson’s dystopian satire Feed was disturbingly prescient about our reliance on technology and its toll on language, the environment, and perhaps humanity itself. Given current technology, as well as current politics, have any aspects of the novel moved out of the realm of science fiction?

 

Lauren Adams About Lauren Adams

Lauren Adams teaches English and ELL at Natick High School and adolescent literature at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Formerly a Senior Editor for The Horn Book Magazine, she regularly contributes book reviews.

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  1. Catherine K says:

    As I read Feed, I was disturbed to realize how on-point the story was in describing the way the advertising world caters to us and in a way, manipulates us. Throughout the book, we watched the adolescent characters being constantly bombarded with advertisements based on a variety of factors–their current location, what their eyes had been viewing, their emotions, and their purchasing habits. This all felt creepily “real” when you think about how Amazon works, tracking what you’ve purchased and recommending other items “you may like.” Or perhaps you can recall having searched for flights to a certain location and then all of the side banners on websites you proceed to visit are advertisements for hotels, attractions, and rental cars in that specific location. Or when you peruse a website with job listings and then all of a sudden you are receive daily emails with related job posts or tips.

    Feed was published in 2002 but now, 16 years later, the insidious commercialization, advertising, and consumerist culture feels creepily authentic. Sure, flying cars, trips to the moon and other planets, and brain implants have not quite taken form yet but tailored advertisements sure have.

    On another note, I was especially struck by one of the government (or corporate?) announcements that said, “…what the President meant in the intercepted chat. This was, uh, nothing but a routine translation problem. It has to understood, that…It has to be understood that when the President referred to the Prime Minister of the Global Alliance as a ‘big shithead,’ what he was trying to convey was, uh–this is an American idiom used to praise people, by referring to the sheer fertilizing power of their thoughts” (p. 98). As far as current politics, does this “big shithead” reference remind anyone of Trump’s January 11th immigration comment, “”Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”

    It’s literally the exact same word with two different suffixes. Hits pretty close to home…

  2. Rose Connelly says:

    I just finished reading Feed, and honestly I’m still kinda trying to make sense of what happened to me over the last 300 pages. I don’t know that I have a cohesive take on the book yet so much as a bunch of stray thoughts and a strong desire to never use my phone or computer again, run screaming into the wilderness, and never come back to modernized society.

    So here are my stray thoughts:
    – This reminded me of A Clockwork Orange. Mostly because of the prolific and creative new invention of slang and social trends that makes reading the novel feel like an act of translation (Meg! Unit!). But also because of the deep dystopia as seen through the eyes of a mostly unquestioning, morally compromised, “hip” protagonist (okay, Tituss is not as awful as Clockwork Orange’s protagonist, but he’s not great.)
    – Was anyone else surprised by the left turn this book made into another classic genre of YA: the morally and mentally superior dying girl? It’s certainly a worn trope I’m used to seeing in teen lit, but it was an interesting remix to find it here, in such a bizarre scifi world.
    – Not sure how or if to judge Tituss — obviously he’s a victim of the corrosive society he lives in, but he also is wretched to the only morally reliable characters in the book (Violet and her father)
    – Kind of crazy that this book was written in 2002 — before Facebook, or Instagram or Twitter or Googleglass or virtual reality. We sure are proving Anderson right in some terrifying ways.
    – Is there such thing as YA lit that ever implies that technology can be a good thing? Not saying teens shouldn’t be warned of the dangers of it, but I think there’s a lot of doom-selling out there.

  3. I loved science fiction as an adolescent, and I still love it as an adult. I am also a big fan of using science fiction in the classroom – especially as students are moving from concrete thinking to abstract thinking in middle school, and making more philosophical/abstract connections between what they read and their world/society.

    I read Feed as an adolescent (8th or 9th grade?); I think it was recommended by a teacher. I remember really enjoying it as an adolescent, and finding it fascinating. When I first read it as an adolescent, there were no smartphones, and I didn’t even own a cell phone myself. So, I remember being really fascinated by the concept of the “feed” – constant communication, constantly being distracted by images, ads, music, and the feeling of “silence” and “discomfort” when the feeds are not working. It felt completely imaginative, dystopian, and disturbing. When I re-read Feed for this week, I was amazed by how much the world had changed, and resembled the world imagined by M. T. Anderson. The constant communication/texting/snapchatting is a part of adolescents’ and adults’ lives now, and it is almost identical to what’s imagined in Feed. The constant distraction and stimuli through devices was something I could easily connect to Feed, and the unbearable and disturbing sense of ‘silence’ described when there are problems with Feed. Also, as I re-read the book, many things I had not paid attention to stood out – the changing language, literacy becoming obsolete, different school systems of Titus and Violet…

    Feed is definitely a book I would recommend to my students, and I would love to develop a unit around it. Supplementing the book with current news, videos, articles about developments in technology, and more philosophical pieces would be a unit planning project I would love to work on!!

  4. Caroline Glaenzer says:

    Feed, a novel about the ubiquity of targeted advertising, social connection, and our consequently increased lack of individuality, highlights a number of tropes popular in dystopian literature. Anderson uses mechanics of language to portray the environment’s premise of consumerism, waste, and selfishness. Thoughts are punctuated with advertisements, and Anderson uses the character Violet to emphasize the ways in which targeted advertising are becoming increasingly invasive and should be resisted. As Violet’s father notes, “we Americans are interested only in the consumption of out products. We have no interest in how they were produced, or what happens to them…once we discard them.” The considered reflection of the kind of world we want to live in, where products are a mere thought away, where desires are willed into existence with no action, where everything is immediate and unintentional, is a valuable one.

    While I might recommend this book to older students who might enjoy the anti-imperial, individualistic perspective, I probably would not consider using this book in a classroom (especially since I teach middle schoolers, and this is certainly a book for older students). Anderson’s uses feeling of sexual desire to highlight how nearly all other primal emotions have been eradicated through the Feed. As Titus notes, “that’s one of the great things about the feed – that you can be super smart without ever working. Everyone is super smart now” (page 47). In short, everything is automated. The joy of learning are eliminated through School ™, critical thinking and inquiry become inherently undervalued, assiduity, an assuredly American value, is nowhere to be found in this dystopian environment. However, desire, bodily wants, and sex are used throughout the novel as a way to show how individual wants and drives cannot be eradicated through the internet. I felt Anderson highlighted the value of sex to show the importance of individuality in lust and love. This is underscored as early as page 17, where Titus notices Violet “[watched] the juice. For her own amusement, she was letting it go, gentle and sexy.” Titus’s categorization of Violet as “gentle and sexy” accentuates his attraction to her, and there mutual attraction is a dominant theme throughout the book. This an important consideration, leading to questions of What truly defines a person? Why can these sensations not be automated? What value does desire have in our daily life? – I would not feel comfortable reading these passages in a classroom, or leading a discussion or lesson concerning the primal strength of sexual desire, which resonates frequently throughout the book.

    This leads me to the question: when working with novels with adult themes, how have other educators approached “awkward” topics? Is there a place for discussion of sexual desire in the classroom? Am I being too rigid and Puritan? I’d be curious to hear whether anyone else experienced a similar reaction, or whether other educators have experience working with more adult themes in the classroom.

  5. Yesterday a friend came up to me as I was reading Feed and asked me what it was about. After I explained to him the technological concept and gave him a basic plot summary, he asked, “So would you do it? Would you get a Feed?”

    I knew what I wanted to say… what I should say. “Of course not! I don’t want those corporations having that much data on my preferences and personal information. I don’t want myself to became that dependent on technology. I would never let my mind become so cluttered – invaded, rather – by flashy advertisements and meaningless chatter.” That’s what I wanted to say. But in reality, haven’t I already said “Yes?”

    As I’m sitting here writing this post on my laptop computer, I’m listening to music on wireless earbuds, streaming music through a personalized, on-demand app. I have this advanced technology just centimeters from my brain, relaying sensory inputs that are tailored my tastes and habits. In two seconds, I could be on social media, where I would get updates from friends across the world and ads for products I never knew I wanted. Even though the hardware is (for now) external to my body, it is already serving the same purposes as the Feed. (As others have commented, it is amazing that Anderson wrote this before most of these technologies existed!)

    At the start of book, Anderson dedicates his book “to all those who resist the Feed.” Clearly, he is writing us a cautionary tale about technology. But he also makes a confession in the end notes: he contributes to the very system he warns us of. He has a love-hate relationship with the Feed; while he sees its dangers, he cannot bring himself to live apart from it. This tension comes into the story when Violet’s requests for financial support are rejected. She does not attract any corporate sponsors because her profile isn’t a promising investment. Her attempt to resist the Feed is ultimately a step toward her demise. This follows the pattern of her parents’ attempt to resist it – of not buying her a Feed until she is older, which underlies her severe reaction to the attack. While he admires those who attempt to resist, Anderson concedes our dependency on the Feed, given the realities of the status quo. Because we have fed it and been fed by it to such an extent, it is not so easy to cut ties now.

  6. I really enjoyed Feed. I’ve always had an interest in dystopian YA, and I felt that this one was particularly resonant with today’s society and our addiction to technology. I’m particularly intrigued by the fact that Feed was published in 2002. Did people even text one another in 2002? Admittedly, I was only a child at the time, but it felt like this book was extremely ahead of its time, especially with the “chat” feature of the Feed (text messages) and the targeted advertisements. I remember in 2012, an article came out about Target’s consumer profile algorithms being able to detect pregnancy with eerie accuracy. This article was extremely shocking at the time, but only a few years later we all accept it as normal. I think an interesting activity for teaching this book in a classroom would be for students to compare and contrast aspects of Feed’s society to society today, and predict whether or not things could ever get that bad. Will we start implanting chips in our heads within the next few centuries?

    On that note, one thing I noticed about Feed was that the chips had only been installed for a generation or two, since Violet’s father had an external, outdated version. At the close of the novel, it was clear that society was collapsing. Therefore, what was M.T. Anderson trying to say about the sustainability of such a society? It burned out so quickly. What was it that tipped the scales?

    Here’s the article from 2012 on Target’s targeted ads:
    https://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2012/02/16/how-target-figured-out-a-teen-girl-was-pregnant-before-her-father-did/#2db8255a6668

  7. As a child and adolescent, I absolutely loved dystopian novels. The fantasy and surealism that flirted on the edge of reality kept me enthralled throughout the novel. As I’ve gotten older, I have leaned more towards non-fiction. This weeks selections were an amazing throw back to my adolescents. I was eager to pick the stories back up everytime I had to put them down.
    The first book I read this week was “The Feed.” “The Feed,” was a fantastic tale that took us through an alternative, but not that unfathomable, time in the future. I thoroughly enjoyed the way the author thought through the realistic qualities such as the up cars, the personalized advertisements and shopping, the ability to “chat” instantaneously through the feed and more. One thing I did find irritating was the author’s treatment of the female characters in the story. Throughout most of the book, the females were seen as dense, limited, and shallow. As a teacher, I would be sure to have my students discuss these concepts and determine the relationships between the characters.
    I next read “Far Far Away.” I really enjoyed this story and the way the author dealt with narration and point of view. I found it so interesting that the story was told through the voice, Grimm, but still told slightly through Jeremy’s point of view. It was especially interesting considering the “celebrity” of the Brothers Grimm and the fact that we have not really been privy to hearing their actual voice. I was also interested in the way the relationship between Ginger and Jeremy developed. I liked the development of both of their characters and the way we saw both of their strengths and flaws.
    Both of these text offered glimpses into other realities and worlds. I enjoyed both of these selections as a reader. As a educator, I believe there is room for both of them in the classroom.

  8. As a kid, I was crazy about mythology, fairy tales, and folklore. (I ended up studying comparative religion/folklore & mythology in Grad School Part 1, so clearly this passion still lives in me!). For this reason, and so many others, I was captivated by Far, Far Away. I absolutely loved McNeal’s blend of fantasy, reality, magical realism, fairy tale, and folklore. The novel read both refreshingly new and very, very old as it drew upon influences from across these genres.

    As such, I would absolutely teach it in a class. I’d want to draw students’ attention to the ways in which the book draws on the tropes of fairy tales (the hut in the woods, the kindly old character who turns out to be evil, children who need to rely on one another to survive, people referred to by their professions like The Baker). I would also focus on the ways in which the book is self-aware of these influences, such as when Jacob laments he should have known that going to a cabin in the woods would end in disaster. This book could spark fruitful discussions about the patterns that exist in folklore and mythology, and the ways in which authors, both ancient and modern, have drawn on these patterns for inspiration since time immemorial (I would supplement this book with parts of Joseph Cambell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” ). Far, Far Away is another reminder that in literature (as in so much else) “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hero_with_a_Thousand_Faces
    https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/12124-the-past-is-never-dead-it-s-not-even-past

  9. I didn’t realize until after I finished the novel that it had been written in 2002. I just assumed that it had been written within the last few years because with eerie accuracy it describes a world I am afraid we are heading towards. (Though, I am also interested in Rose’s questions about YA books showing that technology can be a good thing.) I no longer believe it is a gigantic jump to imagine that a feed could be installed into our bodies. I can imagine an iPhone like device that allows us to message and look up information, though the parts where the feed can control the human body seem far away. We are already bombarded by advertisements. At least half of the apps on my phone require me to view advertisements in order to use them. Like Adam mentioned, it would be difficult to refuse a feed. I do not want something in my head that I cannot shut off. I listened to the book on audio book, which I highly recommend because the advertisements are put to music and sound like real commercials. I would be listening to narrative, when all of a sudden the advertisement would interrupt. I can’t imagine how distracting this would become in real life, but Violet’s father describes how one can not be successful in American society without it. It reminds me of the equalizer devices in Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron,” which drastically affect critical thinking in society. We see this in Feed when Titus remarks that he can just look up which of the Civil War battles George Washington fought in.
    I enjoyed revisiting fairy tales and revisiting Grimm fairy tales in a new style with a darker edge. I loved fairy tales growing up, but do not often have an opportunity to view them. I usually only have the opportunity when I am babysitting younger family members. The adult spin on some childhood stories was welcomed, and I enjoyed keeping a keen eye for allusions to the stories I knew. I think this book could be a welcome option for adolescents as a way to reconnect with this sub-genre of fantasy.

  10. The first time I read Feed was in 2009 for my high school freshman English class. I remember enjoying the book, but being especially disturbed by the end of it. Getting to re-visit it now was a really fascinating exercise. At the time I’d read the book, I remembered school counselors bringing up Facebook for the first time (something about cyber bullying or procrastination), and the first person I knew to get an iPhone got hers that year, too. It’s wild to experience how relevant Anderson’s book still feels, more than 15 years since it was first released. Two of the things that stood out to me on this read-through were his descriptions of viral fashion and product trends (the birds reminded me of fidget-spinners), and as someone mentioned above, the reliance on the Feed not only for socialization, but also for professional success. It immediately made me think of the Homework Gap video (link below) and of the recent kerfuffle where former Representative Jason Chaffetz said the poor should stop buying smart phones if they wanted to afford healthcare, sparking the discussion (link below) of how heavily we rely on internet connections to do homework, participate more fully in academic life, be more successful professionally, etc.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqkAlwGsxwE
    https://www.cnbc.com/2015/04/01/for-more-poor-americans-smartphones-are-lifelines.html

  11. Nick Kelly says:

    I am convinced that much of the world described in Feed is going to happen. The flying cars are probably the least likely thing in the novel to happen. I think it is very likely that the equivalent of today’s phones and computers will become chips in our heads. If/when that happens, a malfunctioning chip would probably affect bodily functions and possibly kill the person. I had not thought that it would be a way for people to get high, but that makes sense, too. Apart from the central conceit, other aspects of the world feel likely. Large scale growing of artificial meat seems inevitable. Corporations building consumer profiles of us based on our purchases and targeting ads is already happening. I found it very chilling that after Violet tries to resist the corporations’ ability to build her consumer profile, they succeed in doing that when she is dying: “Would you be interested in more mournful dirges?” Of course, as Catherine mentioned, perhaps the most eerily prescient moment is when President Trumbull calls the head of another country a “sh*thead.” Perhaps M.T. Anderson really can predict the future.

    I also found myself interested in some of the throwaway details of the world, sometimes even more than the central conceit: Nostalgia Feedback, where you become nostalgic for increasingly recent things until you become nostalgic for the exact moment you’re living and your body freezes; whale hunting making its big comeback as a team-building exercise for corporate retreats; the miles of cockroaches crawling over the domes. The satire is sometimes broad, but still cutting, like the nostalgia for “riot fashion”, with Kent State and Watts Riot outfits. I was excited to find such heady science-fiction ideas and moments approaching David Cronenberg-style body horror in this novel, and I was especially impressed that the novel did not have its characters rebel and dismantle the system, but rather followed through on a despairing vision of humanity, or at least America: that like Nero we will play with our toys while the world burns.

    Yet more than the downbeat ending and the moments of body horror, the element of Feed that I found almost viscerally upsetting was the relationship between Titus and Violet and, as Rose said, the novel’s convergence with the genre of the “morally and mentally superior dying girl.” I find myself in a similar place as my classmates last week who were so angry at the mother in “One Crazy Summer.” I actually gasped when Titus deleted the memories she sent him, and I was completely on her father’s side when he cursed at him while she was on her deathbed. I know Titus does not know how to deal with his emotions in this situation, but I found it very hard to sympathize with him. It actually hurt to watch a wonderful, thoughtful person slowly and painfully die while being treated so terribly by the protagonist. Quendy says that this is happening to Violet, not to him, but because the story is written from his perspective, it is happening to him. Just as Titus describes feeling trapped in other people’s bodies while watching their memories, I felt like I was trapped in the body of a jerk and desperately wanted to get out of his POV. I am still trying to wrap my head around this element of the book, but I suppose it is a compliment that it had such an emotional effect on me.

  12. I am a little surprised when I found so many of you are into science fiction. I have to admit that as a child I often skip the “science” part in a sci-fi and just read the plots. In Feed, Anderson created new vocabulary and detailed description of advertisements and devices that make me feel the “reality effect”, showing me what the future of electronic generation may look like. I feel Feed is more like “soft science” to me rather than “hard science”.
    The book Feed also makes me think about the concept of “heterotopia”. I am not confident with the use of this big word, but it makes me think about what is real versus what is surreal. We see pieces of ourselves by staring into the empty eyes of the characters in the story.

    A Chinese political satirist once wrote, “There’s something disturbing in the golden future you are about to build for us, but I am not going.”In a sense I feel it serves as a warning of our overdependence on digital devices. I feel sad when Violet says,”You are different because you are the only one using metaphors. ” Our capacity to imagine, to communicate is greatly hindered by the digital language.

  13. I want to connect first to Katelyn’s comment because she mentions one of the lines in the story that I found extremely funny and biting at the same time: when Titus mentions “Everyone is supersmart now. You can look things up automatic…like which battles of the Civil War George Washington fought in” (p. 47). For me, this is irony used superbly by Anderson, both as a literary device to provoke laughter (What history teacher hasn’t had a student moment like this?!) and to provoke dread (Is this how intelligence will be defined in the future? If so, that certainly is artificial.)

    I agree with Katie that many students would be excited to read this and compare Anderson’s dystopian corporate-saturated futuristic society to our current society, and in particular as adolescents’ potential power and vulnerability in those societies. In fact, there are two films that might pair well in a class examination: Consuming Kids and Screenagers. Like Feed, both of these focus on the consumer capitalist culture fostered among youth, especially though their personal electronics and social media. As it is all but a given that today’s youth will be continually targeted and immersed in this culture, having a unit where they can critically examine the socio-economic, political forces that are at play may be one way to help them take on a more conscious role to “resist the Feed.”

  14. Zheala Qayyum says:

    Science fiction and fantasy are may favorite type of books to read sine I was a kid. However as I read The Feed and look at medical education or education in general, it seems to be so real and relevant that I found it scary! Even now there is the use of google glass as we examine patients, generating real time charts while we are sitting, so I am sort of waiting for when this is no longer going too be far out.
    I found the description of all the machines and data being outside the bodies and now they were inside, as being probably the only dividing line for us to cross over – we are constantly flooded with information.

    What I love about fantasy and science fiction has always been that I appreciate all the places I can go.
    I ran an elective for medical students and psychiatry residents about fairy Tales and their importance in the development of children’s imagination and understanding metaphor, and I find that this genre of stories in particular has a lot of impact in speaking to what is within, without making it too obvious.

  15. It’s always interesting how dystopian literature motivates my students to read. For many of my former students, the first time they ever read an entire novel was when they entered my ninth-grade class. I always started the school year with Fahrenheit 451, one of the books that genuinely made me love reading when I was a child, and I can see how Feed would be a book that would deepen my students’ loves for reading even further. I can think of so many powerful conversations I would love to have around the issues presented in this literature.

    At the heart of every dystopian novel I’ve read is the fear that this story could actually come true (or is already happening) in this society. The topics that the book touches on are timely and relevant: advertising, the internet, interconnectedness and personal relationships, fear of war, groupthink, virtual reality, consumerism, and social media. These are all things in which my students were invested, so I could see the benefit to teaching this novel in an English classroom or even providing the book for students to read independently.

    I appreciated Violet’s character and was particularly upset about her demise throughout the chapters. Even so, I still like how realistic the book is. So often, I read books and watch movies with perfect, happy endings, and, in life, that’s just not always how it works out. I am sometimes afraid that some books and movies are sending students the wrong message, so the ending of this novel was (sadly) refreshing. I think it was also refreshing to have Titus painted as such an unlikeable character. I felt that he was easily influenced, unreliable, and (generally) uncaring. I know that he was simply a product of his environment, but I still wanted more from him. I wanted him to stray away from the norm and think more like Violet, but I see now that this was portrayal was done intentionally. I believe that Anderson wrote this book to send people a warning and to specifically remind us of how valuable individualism and language are. This book was written to combat a future of apathetic, politically unaware citizens, and I could see the broad conversations resulting from book ones that are necessary and powerful.

    Connecting this to “Hot Dog, Katsa,” the short article we read for class today, I am also thinking about the extensive amount of writing and rewriting it must have taken to get this finished product. I was particularly impressed by the language, and the culture created was realistically frightening. Bravo to the author! (Sorry, I’m late! I can’t believe it slipped my mind to post this week!)

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