George Saunder’s “Escape from Spiderhead” has many compelling components from its intensely vivid descriptions to its unsettling dystopian setting. While there are many interesting details and descriptions throughout, the story ultimately seems to circle back to a question surrounding the humanity, or the lack thereof in human beings. Surrounding the raw drama and violence of the story are the drugs that are used to influence the convicts’ actions. Clearly, the use of the drugs is the primary fictitious element of the story, meant to signify a jump in technology that has not yet been reached. At least to myself, but I suspect most readers, the drugs are seen as an unknown futuristic substance that have influence and reach well beyond any current technology; the subjects behave and react in bizarre ways while we imagine how we might possibly react to such an unreal substance. However, while reflecting on the story, I began to question how much of a stretch component the drugs really are.
After all, as human beings, we are not robots and we don’t make decisions based off of an objective programming; we are organic beings with complex minds and our minds are heavily influenced by already naturally occurring chemicals, hormones, etc. Especially when we are more emotional, we may feel that we aren’t even thinking but rather acting on impulse, impulse associated with instinct rather than logical thinking. Basically, our minds are already under the constant influence of natural drugs that will largely steer our mentality. The most profound moments in one’s life can probably be framed within an achievement, a relationship, a tragedy, a struggle. Those sorts of moments might often have that sort of dreamy, unreal feeling because our body and mind have already determined how we will act; we are programmed to react a certain way to love, friendship, adversary, sadness. Even our morals and ethics that we lay our actions on our often determined by the experiences we have as babies and children, long before we begin to think critically about the world. The dystopian reality where humanity’s free will and intellect can be easily hijacked with chemicals and technology may be less sci-fi and more like a minor extension of reality because we may have never really possessed that perceived free will in the first place. If we are already highly emotionally creatures, constantly being influenced by signals out of our control, then is it that much of a stretch to see the effectiveness of these sorts of drugs? Ultimately, much humanity do we really possess? The answer to a question like this is subjective and difficult to determine, but Saunders does end the story hinting that humanity does exist. Despite his alienization, dehumanization, and total influence under the drugs, the narrator seems to be able to act according to his own will, ultimately coming to terms with himself as he dies, swearing to never kill again. His action represents a change in his personal mentality, a strong demonstration of morality, and comes on his own terms, signifying a decision that is about as independent and humanizing as an action can be.