MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Practice Test 1

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Hope and fear are the quintessential political emotions, for both take as their object an unknown future, rife with possibilities for cultural flourishing or social dissolution. The one always accompanies the other, for we inevitably dread that our aspirations might remain unrealized, and cannot but yearn for our anxieties to prove unwarranted. An era may come to be dominated by one or the other pole, but its opposite can only be repressed temporarily—witness the opportunistic ascendance of the theme of "Hope" in US politics subsequent to the unabashed fear-mongering of the "War on Terror."

Given the centrality of hope and fear in politics, there can thus be no question that the most authentically political of all works of fiction are novels of utopia and dystopia. The former term, a hybrid of "good place" (the ancient Greek eutopos) and "no place" (outopos), is a coinage of Sir Thomas More, whose 1516 Utopia is regarded as the urtext of both genres, notwithstanding that the literary construction of ideal societies is found as early as Plato's Republic nearly two millennia prior. Utopian fiction celebrates human potential, particularly the power of reason, which is supposedly capable of engineering a more perfect world than the one that the arbitrary forces of nature and tradition have yielded.

The first great dystopian novel was not published until 1921, more than four centuries after More's original Utopia. Yevgeny Zamyatin's We depicts the dark side of human reason, what has come to be known as "instrumental rationality," a robotic logic in which efficiency is valued for its own sake, and citizens are mere means for the advancement of political ends, which must remain unexamined. Zamyatin's literary personae are granted numbers rather than names and treated accordingly. Instrumental rationality is readily apparent in other icons of dystopia: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and (more recently) Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games. Though each novel uniquely paints a dire tomorrow, all portray humans as cogs in a vast social contraption, the overarching illogic of which belies the tidy sensibility of its everyday operations.

As with their emotional antecedents, utopia and dystopia are inextricably intertwined, evident in their deep structural commonalities. Each in its distinctive way emphasizes the fate of the transgressor, the individual who would privilege personal desires over the ironclad imperatives of state. Such free spirits cannot be tolerated within the body politic any more than a cancerous cell within the body physical. The analogy is imperfect, of course, since a tumor does not feel. From the transgressor's perspective, a vantage taken up far more commonly in novels of dystopia, the well-oiled social machine becomes a torture apparatus. Indeed, a tremendous amount of toil and violence are required for the proper maintenance of a device that runs so contrary to nature; the most effective social lubricants are blood, sweat, and tears.

Ironically, utopias and dystopias are intended to be immutable and self-perpetuating, which would preclude the very possibility of politics; a certain future will bring either despair or confidence, but not the restless blend of hope and fear that accompanies uncertainty. In other words, both genres represent human coexistence as a problem and the state as its solution. The utopian novel seeks to answer the political question, while its counterpart calls into question an emerging answer. The most profound works of speculative political fiction reject this dynamic entirely—which, in its crudest form, merely recapitulates instrumental rationality—suggesting perhaps the real problem is envisioning human life as a problem to be solved.

1. Which of the following does the author consider to be a point of difference between utopian and dystopian literature?

I. The depiction of violence as necessary for maintaining social order

II. An emphasis on the role that reason plays in shaping society

III.The likelihood of considering the point of view of a social deviant

  • A. A dystopian society always seems like an ideal political order to the members of its ruling class.
  • B. Most utopian societies allow for the questioning of overarching political objectives.
  • C. Dystopias do not actually require significant amounts of violent force to be maintained.
  • D. Many works of speculative fiction can be classified as neither utopian nor dystopian.

2. Which of the following statements, if true, would most strengthen the author's claim that "utopia and dystopia are inextricably intertwined" (paragraph 4)?

  • A. I only
  • B. III only
  • C. II and III only
  • D. I, II, and III

3. By stating that "the analogy is imperfect" in the fourth paragraph, the author most likely intends to suggest that:

  • A. people in a society should be regarded as more than just parts making up a whole.
  • B. human societies are far more complex than the cells that constitute a single human body.
  • C. comparisons between any two ideas can only ever be imprecise.
  • D. transgressors are not treated identically under utopian and dystopian social orders.

4. The author refers to The Handmaid's Tale in paragraph 3 in order to:

  • A. argue that women are just as talented as men at writing speculative fiction.
  • B. challenge the idea that society should be organized rationally.
  • C. give an example of utopian literature that explores the concept of instrumental rationality.
  • D. offer an instance of a novel in which humans are treated as means rather than ends.

5. Based on the discussion in paragraph 4, which of the following would be LEAST likely to be regarded as a "transgressor"?

  • A. A citizen of a dystopia who tries to lead a rebellion against the powers that be
  • B. A citizen of a utopia who neglects political duties to spend more time with loved ones
  • C. An official in a dystopian society who uses torture to reprogram disobedient citizens
  • D. A criminal in a utopian society who is punished for questioning the state's legitimacy

6. The author's primary concern in the passage is to:

  • A. advocate for the superiority of dystopian over utopian fiction.
  • B. discuss the characteristics of utopian and dystopian literature.
  • C. challenge the notion that human life is a problem to be solved.
  • D. argue that the most politically relevant emotions are hope and fear.