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Looking at Module A responses recently, I have noticed something strange: students understand the context of Frankenstein, they have a handle on Romanticism, the Enlightement and the effects of Industrialisation; however, they don’t get the context for Blade Runner. There are some vague references to globalisation and capitalism but no real evidence of the values underpinning those movements. I think that it’s possibly because many teachers (like me) grew up in the 80s and so we assume that part of history is common knowledge. It’s not. Students completing the HSC this year were born in the early 90s and 1982 is outside their experience (and, let’s be honest, their interest). Here are some points to help rectify this problem.

The Cold War: Although it broke out into “hot” wars throughout the 20th Century (Korea and Vietnam being the most obvious examples) the Cold War consisted mostly of spying and tense international relations between the US and the USSR. It also manifested in the Space Race, the over-emphasis of western nations on capitalist policies and their continued interference in the politics of developing nations. The tone of this period of history was pessimistic, with the constant threat of nuclear war hanging over the world. This pessimism about the future of the human race and of the planet is clearly seen in Blade Runner.

Globalisation: this is a term which refers specifically to the unification of economies through free trade. It can also be used to describe the shrinking of the world through media and communication technology. Its effects can be seen in Blade Runner in the Chinatown scenes, where the movement of peoples and languages across borders is evident.

The Reagan Doctrine: Ronald Reagan was President of the US from 1981 to 1989. His policies were shaped, at least in part, by the Cold War, and so included funding anti-Communist groups overseas  (like the Taliban – oops) and being aggressively pro-capitalist.

Thatcherism: Margaret Thatcher (who famously said, “No woman in my time will be Prime Minister” ) was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990. She was aggressive in her economic policy, which involved prioritising the control of inflation over the control of unemployment; and limiting the power of trade unions. Many people saw this attitude as being “money over people”. To understand more about the potential of Thatcherism see…

Alan Moore was not a fan of Thatcher or her politics.

One of the main practical outcomes of both Reaganism and Thatcherism, was Deregulation. This is the removal of government controls on corporate activities. Usually the justification was “free market competition”. The consequences of deregulation can be seen in Blade Runner in the unrestrained commercialisation of not only our planet but the offworld colonies. The looming presence of the Tyrell Corp over the government offices is a visual representation of the power shift which took place during the 1980s. It was during this time that many companies went multinational, thus breaking down national boundaries, furthering globalisation and the disempowerment of governments.

A useful word to use for this worldview is Neoconservatism. The main values associated with Neoconservatism are competition (in the free market sense of competition between corporations, free of government interference), economic freedom and traditional “family” values. In some ways, Neoconservatism is the natural child of America’s puritan past and its focus on the Protestant work ethic.

Another consequence of the deregulation of corporations and the commodification of everything is Environmental damage and its reactor, the Environmentalism. The fear of irreversible environmental damage is clear from Philip K. Dick’s 1968 source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

The message that is explicit in the novel and implicit in the film is that the destruction of natural habitats, and the animals that live in them, is ultimately dehumanising. The key to passing the Voigt-Kampf test is demonstrating empathy with animals. This is almost ironic as the corporation that administors the test is probably one of the corporations responsible for the utter destruction of nature. The potential for mass extinctions due to human interference became a real concern for a number of people by the 1980s.

Technological Innovation. In the 1980s scientific progress had moved from the industrialisation of the 19th Century to a new medium: information. Innovation of this time focused on computers and software. The ’80s were the era of the personal computer (for the first time people had computers in their homes) and of arcade gaming. The replicants can be seen, perhaps, as just another consumer gadget, like a PC.

Space Exploration was also huge. American had won the Space Race in 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface of the moon but there was more to explore. In 1977 NASA launched Voyager 1, a probe designed to visit the outlying planets of our solar system and continue beyond. It also carries a “golden record” designed to convey information about the human race to any extraterristrial life the probe may encounter. Space exploration was the antidote to the pessimism of the Cold War. In Blade Runner the optimism of colonising new worlds is undermined as they are necessary refuges from the polluted ruin of Earth rather than symbols of human endeavour.

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Many schools approach the Preliminary English Extension course in the same way: first, they select a “classic” text (anything from The Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s Odyssey to Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen or a play by Shakespeare); then they introduce students to the idea of “appropriation” or “adaptation” by exploring texts that are based on or inspired by the classic or core text.

For example, my old school used Homer’s Odyssey as the core text and then everything from Virgil’s Aeneid (essentially the first fanfiction) to Margaret Atwood’s feminist Penelopiad and the Cohen Brother’s delightful film, O Brother Where Art Thou? to explore how context and values influence a text.

In the final term of the course, the students are faced with the daunting Term 3 Project, in which they must select their own “classic” (pre-WWII) text and at least two appropriations, to study. They also have to journal their responses to the texts and create their own appropriation, reflecting selected values within a given context.

The first, and most difficult, step is choosing the core text. Here are some suggestions, followed by an deeper analysis of one pair of texts.

Fairytales, think Little Red Riding Hood or Cinderella. They’re easily analysed (most are explicit about their core value in the moral at the end) and have been frequently appropriated.

Shakespeare plays, think The Taming of the Shrew or Romeo and Juliet. The analysis might be a little more difficult but there’s a fair amount of scholarly writing around them already.

Arthurian Legend, think the Marriage of Gawain and Dame Ragnelle or Tristan and Isolde. These are fun and the appropriations range from retellings for children to ribald parodies.

Greek or Roman Myth, think Icarus or Oedipus. These have strong messages and have inspired lots of clever retellings, from operas to comic books.

If you’re not familiar with any of these genres, another approach might be to take a text you already like (your favourite novel, comic book, or film) and then find out if it was inspired by a classic text.

I recently read The Hunger Games and its sequel Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. The post apocalyptic society of the novel requires each District to sacrifice two young people each year to the Hunger Games, a brutal ritual somewhere between the gladiatorial games of Ancient Rome and a reality TV show.

The sending of two young people each year to be sacrificed in an arena struck a chord with me when I first picked up the novel but my growing sense of something familiar was overwhelmed by the constant allusions to Rome. The city that rules the Districts is called the Capitol. The heroine, Katniss has a team of stylists: Cinna, Flavia, Venia and Octavia, all named after prominent Romans.

But then, just as Katniss and Peeta were boarding the train for the Games, I remembered why the scene and the idea was so familiar: Theseus. In the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, each year the city state of Athens is required to send seven young men and seven young women to the island of Minos to be sacrificed to the Minotaur as punishment for the death of a Minoan prince years before. Similarly, in The Hunger Games, the Capitol uses the games to punish the Districts for their former rebellion.

The challenge when selecting texts for the project is not to be tied down by a text type or genre. A good second appropriation for a project which centred on the myth of Theseus and then branched onto The Hunger Games could be anything from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream–where Theseus is the Duke of Athens–to the video game God of War–where, according to my husband, Kratos rips off the Minotaur’s head and wears it as a jaunty hat. The texts themselves can be just about anything, it is the focus on the context and values that influenced the creation and reception of each text.

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What does it mean to be human? This is the central question of the comparative study of Frankenstein and Blade Runner in the HSC. Other questions result. How far can we extend our concept of humanity? How inclusive can we be? Will artificial life ever be accepted into the human family?

Take a step back. We do not yet have the artificial life pictured by Mary Shelley and Ridley Scott but robotic modifications to the human body are not unknown. Watch this:

Aimee Mullins and her 12 pairs of legs

The phrase that strikes me most in this video is not the child suggesting that Aimee Mullins should fly (although that is pretty cool) but the friend who cries of Aimee’s variable height “that’s not fair!” Aimee Mullins, suffering a serious, in most societies debilitating and ostracizing, disability is the envy of her school friends. Far from being someone to be pitied, she is someone to be admired.

How far can it go? I am not in any way suggesting that Aimee Mullins is less than or more than or something other than human. She is beautiful and strong and a great role model for girls and boys alike.

Yet the question remains: how many body parts can be replaced before we no longer regard someone as fully human? A thumb-drive for a thumb? A video camera for an eye? A hydraulic arm? A clock-work knee joint?

Consider the “Ousters” of Dan Simmons’ epic sci-fi romances Hyperion and Endymion*. Humans, living for centuries in the dark spaces between the stars before the advent of faster than light travel, they modify themselves to fit their environment. The second wave of humans who preserve tradition among the stars are unable to see the Ousters as kin and so fail to accord them human rights.

How do your own ideas about creation and re-creation, about modification and evolution, affect your reading of the two core texts for Module A? Take some time to reflect in a personal response.

* I plan to write more about these wonderful novels in the context of the Extension 1 electives: Science Fiction, Romanticism and Crime Writing.

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