Week 4

Week Four: Posthumanism and Class Conflict


This week’s texts continue the unit’s study of SF as critique by examining alternative visions of posthuman perfectibility–the concept of transcending human shortcomings by evolving into a more intelligent, effective being–as refracted through a capitalist work ethic. These stories illustrate the posthumanizing of workers as dehumanizing. They imagine the posthuman laborer as someone who acquires the reliability of a machine and the collective instincts of an insect while sacrificing their individuality. In each of these cases, the quest for the perfect posthuman employee is complicated by human autonomy and unpredictability.


Week 4, Lesson 1: “‘Repent, Harlequin’ and “Stable Strategies” [75 min class]


Readings “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison

“Stable Strategies for Middle Management” by Eileen Gunn

  1. Define perfectibility as a facet of posthumanism
  2. Analyze how representations of posthuman perfectibility in the week’s stories are predicated on the values and economic interests of the ruling class
  3. Analyze how authors use allusions, in both superficial and structural ways, to develop the themes of a story
  4. Identify and describe distinctive features of an author’s writing style
Agenda Part 1: Lesson Opening [5 min]

  • To begin the lesson, ask for volunteers to recap how they have seen SF be used to critique social issues in the class so far
  • Ask students to share their general impressions of the stories

Part 2: Stylistic Analysis of Ellison [20 min]

  • Point out to students Ellison’s experimental writing style and ask them to share their impressions of it.
  • Read aloud the following passage (or a similar example) to students:
    • “And so it goes. And so it goes. And so it goes. And so it goes goes goes goes goes tick tock tick tock tick tock and one day we no longer let time serve us, we serve time and we are slaves of the schedule, worshippers of the sun’s passing, bound into a life predicated on restrictions because the system will not function if we don’t keep the schedule tight” (Ellison 150).
    • After reading this passage aloud, point out the repetition of “And so it goes” and they way that phrase is transformed into “tick tock,” reminding the reader of the dehumanization of the workers. Ask them to comment on other aspects of the quote’s syntax and diction that they find interesting.
  • Ask students to look through the story and find one passage, similar to the one read aloud, that they think encapsulates Ellison’s unique style. They’ll be given five minutes to find a passage and then volunteers will share their passage and explain what they found notable about it
  • Have students write a one-sentence summary of “‘Repent, Harlequin’” mimicking Ellison’s writing style. Ask for volunteers to share their summaries and use this as an opportunity to review the basic plot of the story

Part 3: Discussion of “Repent, Harlequin” [20 min]

At this point, move into a whole-class discussion of the story, paying particular attention to Ellison’s use of allusions and naming. It may be useful to spend time summarizing the story for students if they found the plot confusing. Below are suggested discussion questions:

  • Examine the story’s epigraph from Walden (Ellison 146); explain to students the role of epigraphs in storytelling for establishing tone and theme, and point out this as the first of multiple allusions in the story. What is it saying and how does it predict and determine the rest of the story?
  • The name of the antagonist, the “Ticktockman” seems playful, innocent, maybe comic book supervillain-esque. Why use this name and how is it fitting for him?
  • What about the name for the protagonist, Harlequin? Why might this be an appropriate name? Why doesn’t the story describe these characters in a more personalized way?
  • What are some of the actions that the Harlequin takes to disrupt this society? Why are his actions seen as so seditious?
  • Point out to students another allusion at the end of the story to another dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (Ellison 155). Compare the way this allusion is functioning to the epigraph from Walden. How is the story using this allusion, and how is it functioning differently than the Walden allusion?
  • How does the story show the posthuman as a product of the managerial class’s self interest?

Part 4: Discussion of “Stable Strategies” [20 min]

Transition into a whole-class discussion of “Stable Strategies for Middle Management.” This discussion will focus on the depiction of office works as needing to fundamentally change their humanity to succeed in the workplace.

  • Begin by discussing why authors use allusions and drawing a contrast between how Ellison uses allusions in a superficial way with how Gunn’s entire story is structurally an allusion. Explain the plot of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and then ask students to consider how allusions are working differently in this story compared to “Repent, Harlequin”
  • Why is it apt that the narrator is transforming into a mosquito? Why might a different animal be less fitting for this context?
  • There are multiple instances throughout the plot of meals. What is the symbolic role of feeding in the story?
  • Consider the narrator’s relationships in the story, as with her boyfriend, Greg, or her coworker, Harry. How are relationships, romantic and professional, portrayed in the story and to what extent are they part of Gunn’s class critique?
  • How does the story show the posthuman as a product of the ruling class’s self interest?

Part 5: Closing Discussion [10 min]

  • What is the political/economic orientation of the ruling class as depicted in these two stories?
  • Taken together, what do the stories suggest that it means to achieve human “perfection” in the eyes of the ruling class?
  • What critique are the stories offering the 20th-century workplace? Are these critiques justified?


Week 4, Lesson 2: “Nine Lives” [75 minute class]


Readings “Nine Lives” by Ursula K. Le Guin
  1. Define perfectibility as a facet of posthumanism
  2. Analyze how representations of posthuman perfectibility in the week’s stories are predicated on the values and economic interests of the ruling class
  3. Close read key passages for literal and figurative meaning and connect those passages to the story’s overall meaning
  4. Write an interpretive thesis statement on class critique and posthumanism
Agenda Part 1: Lesson Opening [20 minutes]

  • Ask for volunteers to review the plots and discussion of “Repent, Harlequin” and “Stable Strategies” from previous class
  • Ask for some students to share general impressions of “Nine Lives”
  • Watch video of Ursula Le Guin discussing SF
    • Discuss her ideas about how SF as a genre reflects the problems of the present day
    • Discuss whether more technology or less is needed to solve the problems created by technology

Part 2: Small Group Discussion [20 min]

Form students into small groups of 4-5 and assign each group one of three passages. Have each group re-read their assigned passage and then together discuss what they find notable in how it was written and how it connects to the overall meaning of the story. (page numbers for each passage may vary depending on which version you’re using)

  • Passage 1: “She was alive inside but dead outside…’but I’ve seen it so long I can’t see it.’”
  • Passage 2: “It is hard to meet a stranger…the primitive anxiety, the old dread.”
  • Passage 3: “Didn’t know you had an artificial lung.” “I do then…It’s only logic, to be sure.”

Part 3: Discussion of “Nine Lives” [15 min]

After students share their passages, transition to a whole-class discussion of the story. The analysis should lead them to see how the John Chow clones were created by companies for the purposes of mining and financial gain rather than improving humanity. Below are suggested discussion questions:

  • How do Pugh and Martin act as foils for the John Chows?
  • How are the John Chows characterized? Who created them and for what purpose?
  • Le Guin writes that “A clone…might indeed be the first truly stable, self-reliant human being.” In what way are the clones stable or unstable?
  • How does the story’s depiction of clones problematize what it means to be an individual?
  • How does Owen Pugh change by the end of the story? What prompts this change?
  • Discuss the significance of the line, “What can you do but hold your hand out in the dark?”
  • By the end of the story, who appears to be better adapted to the environment, Pugh or the John Chow clones?
  • How does this story present one view of what it means to be a more “perfect” human?

Part 4: Minute Thesis [20 min]

Ask students to pick two of the three stories studied this week. Then have them write a sample thesis statement that uses those two stories to offer an interpretation of the posthuman and class conflict. When they’re finished, ask for volunteers to share their thesis statements. If feasible, the thesis statements can be written on the board or typed up and projected so the class can identify the qualities of effective thesis statements.