Good Guys

Toward the end of the short story “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders, The main character Jeff was forced to watch Heather take her own life. Before the same thing was about to happen to Rachel, Jeff thought to himself, “It was like all I had to do to be a killer again was sit there and wait,” (76). After this Jeff saved Rachel by switching the Darkenfloxx into his own MobiPak. Although Jeff and Rachel were prisoners who had done very bad things, Jeff still had the humanity to not want to see someone die. By societies standards Jeff was the ‘bad guy’ for what he had done in the past, while the ‘good guy’ was Abnesti who forced this upon them. With no regard for either of there lives Abnesti was the one to make them endure everything as he looked down upon them. He had no respect for what he thought was beneath him all the while he tried to convince the prisoners that he was the ‘good guy’. Abnesti could not view the prisoners as humans which ultimately put him in the wrong.

The significance of “acknowledge”

Throughout the story, “escape from spiderhead”, acknowledge is used to force Jeff to cooperate with the experiment and it’s consequences. All of the test subjects are made to be a part of the experiment and to administer the trial themselves, through the word “acknowledge”. The most important moment in the story was when Jeff refuses to say acknowledge. It this moment, Abnesti still makes Jeff allow him to give Rachel Darkenfloxx.

“I did not say “acknowledge.” Enough, Abnesti said. Verlaine, what’s the name of that one? The one where I give him an order and he obeys it? Docilryde. Is their Docilryde in his Mobipak? Abnesti said. Theres Docilryde in every Mobipak, Verliane said.” (75) In this scene, it connotes that Jeff is not making his own decisions, but he is made to believe he is. If every pack has Docilryde, how do we know Jeff’s action have been his own at any point in the story? The word “acknowledge” is a representation of the illusion of choice. If Abnesti can make Jeff do what he wants anyway, acknowledge’s only purpose is to Jeff feel to the impact of “his” decisions and believe they are his, but maybe it was Abnesti all along?

Mutual Recognition

In the story “Escape From Spider Head”, the characters judge each other based off of their own life experiences. This explains why Absteni has the power for most of the story, and all of the subjects see each other as criminals, because they are all there for a crime they did. Absteni see’s himself as the big man in charge in the spider head, because he has the power to tell people what to do. Everybody plays their role. Although, as the story unfolds Jeff begins to see the other characters as people, instead of a criminal, boss, or whatever he thought of them as. He realizes that Absteni is like Rogan’s tattoo, “a rat with a knife in its back, stabbing another rat that just looked clueless”, and he “thought it was a little funny that” he’d “loved” Heather after hearing her crime, but still “didn’t want to kill her”. Additionally, when Jeff killed himself, the birds he flew with “did not recognize” him “as something apart from them”.

Saying this, I believe this story was written to show people to not judge a person based on your life, but to recognize they have a different situation that requires different actions. Therefore everyone should be treated as a person instead of preconceived ideas.

Spiderhead and Our World

Escape from Spiderhead is presented as a story far removed from the norms of our world. We’re shown testing facilities complete with made-up drugs, snarky scientists, and prisoners of experiments who have lost their right to decide their fate. While the story may seem extremely unrealistic, I wonder, is this where we’re headed? I hadn’t really connected the dots until I read this small line,

“In his defense, Abnesti was not in such great shape himself: breathing hard, cheeks candy red, as he tapped the screen of his iMac nonstop with a pen, something he did when stressed,”

This line, while pointing out Abnesti’s declining state of health, also reveals that Apple is an existing company in this universe. Among made up devices and compounds, Darkenfloxx, Verbaleuce, Vivistif, Mobipak, there is an iMac, a recognizable device from our world. While Escape from Spiderhead surrounds us with its own terminology, this iMac is here to remind us that the events of this world our still happening in a version of our world, a world not totally impossible via the means of science. How do we end up on this dystopian path, where prisoners are slaves to research, and where chemical weapons become emotional weapons? What can we do to stop it?

Should Emotions Be Synthesised?

Can human emotion be created from substances created in a lab? If they can, should they be used in lieu of life’s experiences? “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Sanders shows a world where this moral ambiguity becomes a reality.

Jeff is a test subject in a pharmaceutical lab creating chemicals that affect people’s behaviors. He’s given Verbulace, a new substance from the lab, which makes him feel a strong sense of love. He falls in love with the only other person in the room, Heather, and they get busy quickly. Once the substance is withdrawn, however, both Jeff and his newly found partner feeling embarrassed about their ordeal. The next day, the same procedure occurs with a different woman, Rachel. The emotions and actions are the same. Jeff wipes the experiences with Heather and replaces them with his time with Rachel. As with the first test, they’re both tapered off Verbulace and are embarrassed.

Jeff, from these two trials, becomes sad, he ponders the experiences with Heather and Rachel. “I guess I was sad that love was not real? Or not all that real, anyway?” His love was strong, he felt amazing. But when Verbulace was taken away, any feeling he had for someone vanished. The substances can create powerful versions of emotions. Piloting a person with feelings rather than the thought they had before. Jeff wants to get back to the high he felt with Heather and Rachel, but without Verbulace.

After such a reading, what would you decide. Would you want chemical that can replicate human emotion to be readily available? Or would you rather have people experience emotions for themselves?

How are they trapped in the spiderhead?

While reading the story “Escape from spiderhead” I was truly shocked while reading the story. The whole idea that they were stuck in a science experiment because they were criminals or did wrong in their life was interesting. For example, Jeff was a criminal and he told the story about his crime ” Nearby was a brick. I grabbed it, glanced Mike in the head with it”(77). We also never knew exactly what were all the crimes each person committed. There were a lot of questions about the story that we did not get the answer too. Like how long they would be in this experiment ? Does jail even exist anymore? But having all these unanswered questions made you think about the story more when you were done reading the story. But I love a good ending where all the ties are wrapped together and I get all my questions answered.

The Cyborg in the Spiderhead

The horizon of technology has plagued humanity throughout all modernity. Though the idea of human augmentation is a multifaceted one, it can be useful to think of it as a spectrum; on the one end, the helpful, empowering, and often even life saving augmentations of Pacemakers, Cochlear Implants, or Insulin Pumps, on the other end, the abhorrent practices of genomic editing, human breeding, and other eugenic techniques. As long as this spectrum has existed, authors of the western cannon have employed their artistry to warn against moving too far with technology that alters what it means to be human.

George Saunders’s “Escape from Spiderhead” is no different — it offers a broad condemnation of chemical influence on human consciousness. While this commentary is not quite literal — Saunders does not at all make it seem like he is commenting on modern society’s use of augmentation — it is still a running battle between morality and the “pursuit of science” that defines “Spiderhead.” Saunders paints the world of chemical augmentation as corporatized, such as through the use of trademark symbols by chemical names (as in 45, 46, 54, 55, etc.). He also has his characters follow a blind, almost comical “pursuit of science” over morality, as when Absenti — the story’s main protagonist — insists that the tortures experiment on which the story centers was in the name of “the mandates of science” (74).

While this condemnation might be a useful thought experiment about human morality, it poorly reflects the possibilities of human existence. As long as medical science has existed, bio-ethical standards, practices, and procedures have been shaped with the finest precision to make medicine as morally acceptable to broader members of society as possible. For example, in contrast to the story, not only is human chemical augmentation carefully controlled in modern society, it is also useful and even possibly life saving for people with severe mental health conditions. While it is obvious that Saunders is not trying to comment on a world that currently exists per say, Saunders is still making a commentary on the ability of technology to shape human morals in a way that, as outlined above, has never been reflective of reality.

The decades to come will be filled with medical advances — bionic suits, AI, mental chemical enhancements, etc. — that will bring what it means to be human up for debate. How we understand both ourselves and the rest of humanity will evolve, and so will our sense of morality. However, these changes will happen under public scrutiny, and guided by the strict scruples that define western scientific development. Therefore, while it can be appealing to let fiction play out various though experiments on the intersection of science and morality, we should not let this preclude discovering new horizons of medicine and science that revolutionize what it means to be human.

The Bird Passage

On page 80 of the reading I thought that the second paragraph on the page regarding the birds singing was particularly interesting. As Jeff’s body begins to ascend, he talks about how the birds “were manifesting as the earth’s bright-colored nerve endings, the sun’s descent urging them into activity…”. The imagery in this line is very intense and is an interesting animal to chose in a seemingly futuristic world. I’m also curious about the significance of this passage to the overall meaning of the story. I think that the bird’s are a symbol for parts of the reading when Abnesti is able to manipulate the participants feelings. At the end of the passage when it says “that bird’s distinctive song… an accident of brain chemistry” is a connection between the drugs that they administer and the feelings it produces similar to that of a bird and it’s song.

New kind of prison

Escape from Spiderhead had many new and interesting concepts, but the one that stood out to me was this idea of the new kind of jail that Jeff was in. Jeff, as well as Heather and Rachel, were all criminals and instead of being in a regular prison, they were placed in here. All three of them were convicted of murder as well as other crimes. In this new kind of prison, scientists use these criminals as test subjects to test new drugs and study human emotions. What I found most interesting about this was how they ended up there. On page 68, Jeff says, “The trial almost killed her. She’d spent her savings to get me out of real jail and in here.” His trial was very hard on his mom, she went through many changes and challenges. What was more intriguing was that she paid for her son to go to this new prison instead of “real jail.” Was this better than real jail? Was being a test subject better than spending time in jail? As to why this new place was better than real jail was left unsaid, but I think that was the point. Let us imagine what it was like and why it was better.

“Escape from the pain”

“I used it, dropped it down the heat vent, in case I changed my mind, then stood there like: I can’t believe I just did that (78).” In “Escape from Spiderhead” Jeff was required to watch Heather receive an excessive amount of Darkenfloxx in order for him to prove he had no feelings towards her. After the test came back, it was proven that he did not have any. The test also resulted in a lifeless Heather. The Darkenfloxx proved to be much too powerful and led to Heather smashing her head against the wall repeatedly to the point of death. Jeff had to watch all of this unravel. Even after all of this, Abnesti wanted to also Darkenfloxx Rachel to see if Jeff’s results would differ for her. Jeff, however, did not want the guilt of being partially responsible for someones death again. So he decided not to “Acknowledge” when Abnesti asked for his drip to be on. Permission needs to be given in order for an action to take place. While Abnesti was looking for a waiver that would force Jeff to take Docilryde (a drug that makes someone do whatever is asked of them without hesitation) Jeff decides to shoot himself up instead. Jeff recognizes that it is more important for him to endure the drug than to allow someone else to suffer. Jeff would end up hitting his head on a desk to avoid feeling more of the agonizing pain the drug had caused him to feel, and died.