January 31, 2010

Post-Apocalyptic Novel Chosen For Freshman Reading Project

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Out of 50 shortlisted titles that members of the Cornell community suggested, Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep emerged as the selection for the New Student Reading Project of 2010.

The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic future in 2021, after a nuclear war has driven millions of species into extinction and survivors to Mars. The plot centers on the protagonist’s struggle to identify androids in a crowd. By blurring the distinctions between humans and androids, the author explores the qualities, if there are any, which are unique to humans and separates them from automatons.

While the choice departs from the tradition of literary classics, the selection committee, which consists of students, faculty and staff members across colleges, evaluated this year’s selection along similar paradigms as the ones they used to single out The Grapes of Wrath last year.

“We chose a book that will cover a broad range of topics, like The Grapes of Wrath,” Laura Brown, vice provost of undergraduate education, said. “[The Grapes of Wrath] talks about the dustbowl, which sparks discussion about the environment and natural disasters. It also talks about economics, the Great Depression, family and the labor market. We want to generate as many topics as we can for exploration through the book we pick.”

Instead of assembling first-year and transfer students at Barton Hall for a panel discussion, professors from disciplines across the University will conduct presentations on five themes drawn from the book.

A survey conducted by the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute found that students were not benefiting from the panel discussions as much as they would like to.

“Students said the environment was distracting. Because it was a large event, it was hard to hear at times and hard to pay attention,” Brown said. “However, students found the small group discussions really useful. Thus, we decided to change the panel discussion and keep the small group discussions.”

These presentations will take place concurrently with each other; students can choose to attend the one that interests them the most.

“We will have one on robotics and androids, one on virtual worlds, one hopefully on the environment because the story happens after an environmental apocalypse,” Brown said. “We will have a presentation on science fiction films. The book was originally an inspiration for the movie Blade Runner, which influenced the genre of science fiction movies in a major way. We will also have one on affective relations between humans, like how to connect emotionally with another being or whether it is possible to do so with a machine.”

Prof. Shawkat Toorawa, near eastern studies, will lead the presentation on science fiction films.

“I think one of the questions I will ask — and potentially answer — is: what does science fiction allow an author to do [and] what questions it allows the author to ask that other genres may or may not allow in the same way,” Toorawa said. “I will also very likely address the widely held view that a work of science fiction isn’t necessarily ‘serious’ literature or a ‘serious’ film. I would hope that [my presentation] would help make [students’ reading and interpretation of the book] a wider and deeper experience.”

Brown said that the presentations would enrich the small group discussions. When students gather for their discussions, each of them will bring in something different they have learned in the presentations they have gone to.

Besides adding to students’ understanding of the book, these presentations also showcase the University’s diversity to first-year and transfer students, one of the goals that the Reading Project sets out to achieve.

“I am currently doing a research project on developing intelligent machines,” Prof. Hod Lipson, mechanical and aerospace engineering, who will take on the topic of androids and robotics, said. “There are undergraduates, even some freshmen, and graduate students working in the lab. The presentation would be a good way to show the incoming students that these research opportunities in artificial intelligence are available to them at Cornell.”

While the presentations will address five themes covered by the novel, the committee believes that numerous other topics will be discussed in the small group discussions.

“A new religion is invented in the strange post-apocalyptic world in the book. We can think about what role religion plays in the apocalyptic world,” Brown said. “The book also raises the issue of cloning which relates to ethical issues about creating life. There are certainly many possible themes that students can explore. We would meet with small group discussion leaders to talk about what other topics would be relevant.”

Original Author: Jackie Lam