Humanities, Research

Berkeley Talks: Joyce Carol Oates on her dystopian novel ‘Hazards of Time Travel’

The 2018 book, set in a future surveillance state, follows a 17-year-old protagonist who gets exiled to 1959 rural Wisconsin after giving a subversive valedictorian speech

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Joyce Carol Oates talking with Robert Hass

Joyce Carol Oates talks with Robert Hass about her 2018 book Hazards of Time Travel. (UC Berkeley photo by Eric Kotila)

Joyce Carol Oates, author of more than 70 works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, joined Poet Laureate and Berkeley English professor Robert Hass in March 2019 to discuss her 2018 book Hazards of Time Travel.

Set in a dystopian America in 2039, the novel tells the story of a 17-year-old high school student who, after her subversive valedictorian speech, is exiled to rural Wisconsin in 1959.

“It seems like dystopian novels are mostly about extrapolating scary political trends in the present into the future,” said Hass. “1984. The Handmaid’s Tale. It felt like you found yourself more interested in exploring 1959.”

“Or the sort of foundation for the present,” replied Oates, a professor emerita of humanities at Princeton University who has taught as a visiting professor of English at Berkeley. “… Because when I wrote the novel — I was working on it in 2011 — I had no idea at all, as none of us did, that we would have a different kind of political situation today.

“… My novel was written before the campaign of 2016, which was a vicious and wildly divisive campaign from which we will probably never recover. No, I was actually looking ahead toward a surveillance state, which doesn’t have that populist personality demagogue, who’s like a clown, a sadistic clown, who’s very vicious and funny in an ignorant way, playing to the populous.

“In my vision, it’s more of a surveillance state, where the government is actually impersonal, and you never see a personality. … It’s more like, it’s just all around us. We’e in a mesh, a web, of being surveyed and recorded all the time.”

This conversation was part of Berkeley Book Chats, a series presented by the Townsend Center that features faculty members discussing recently completed publications, performances or recordings.

On Oct. 1, Oates will be in conversation with Berkeley English professor and poet John Shoptaw. The online Townsend Center event will take place at 4 p.m. and is free to the public.

Listen to the conversation in Berkeley Talks episode #91: “Joyce Carol Oates on her dystopian novel Hazards of Time Travel.”