Faculty Research & Creative Activity

Bodies of Debt: Interrogating the Costs of Technological Progress, Scientific Advancement, and Social Conquests through Dystopian Literature

Melissa R. Ames, Eastern Illinois University


This essay discusses the successes and challenges of teaching a particular cross-curricular course that focused on controversial issues appearing in scientific research and dystopian literature. The course studied narratives that wrestle with ethical concerns surrounding “progress” (societal achievements, technological advancement, scientific discoveries, and so forth). Contemporary debates and specific issues addressed throughout this course included cloning, stem cell research, black market organ transplants, human trafficking, surveillance technology, euthanasia, and capital punishment. In alignment with research concerning best practices in teaching social responsibility topics, this course was centered on a set of inquiry questions that stretched across all units, texts, and discussions. It also utilized narratives as the site of inquiry – as the safe space in which to wrestle with these controversial issues. In this class students analyzed various fictional dysopian texts (novels, film, and television) that critique the above-mentioned issues, and class discussion revolved around the following questions: what do we do when human survival and societal progress come at extreme costs, and how might such advancements question our faith in humanity? The theme of indebted bodies – bodies created by technology, dependent on technology, governed by technology, or punished by technology – was present in all of the literary and media texts students covered. This motif was studied in the following novels and short stories: Brian Aldiss’s “Super Toys,” MT Anderson’s Feed, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Philip K. Dick’s “Minority Report,” Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, as well as in contemporary film companion texts, such as A.I. Artificial Intelligence, I, Robot, Minority Report, The Life of David Gayle, The Island, and Repo Men.