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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
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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Sia B

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!)

Posted : Feb 13, 2018 10:04

Zheala Qayyum

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.

Posted : Feb 13, 2018 12:47

Sonya B

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 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."

Posted : Feb 13, 2018 12:11

Lisa Wu

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.

Posted : Feb 12, 2018 11:01

Nick Kelly

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.

Posted : Feb 12, 2018 09:48

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