It is no secret that Vladimir Nabokov was a controversial figure. Nabokov famously said inflammatory things about many authors who are in high regard in the literary cannon. For instance, on Gogol, Nabokov said “I was careful not to learn anything from him. As a teacher, he is dubious and dangerous. At his worst, as in his Ukrainian stuff, he is a worthless writer; at his best, he is incomparable and inimitable.” On Hemingway, Nabokov proclaimed, “[He is] a writer of books for boys. Certainly better than Conrad. Has at least a voice of his own. Nothing I would care to have written myself. In mentality and emotion, hopelessly juvenile.”
One possible explanation for this is that unlike many authors, Nabokov writes for the art of writing. Nabokov’s vision of a good writer as presented in his essay on good readers and good writers is a person who does not take the world that exists and morph it to convey their own message but instead embraces a new world for it’s own inherent artistic value. Nabokov is dissatisfied with authors, including many literary giants, who he perceives as trying to push some sort of agenda or philosophy through their works. This is something of which Camus is undeniably guilty, as Camus’s work serves largely as a vehicle to demonstrate Absurdist and Existentialist principals in practice. It’s no surprise then that when asked his thoughts on Camus, Nabokov responded “Dislike him. Second-rate, ephemeral, puffed-up. A nonentity, means absolutely nothing to me. Awful.”
Perhaps all is not lost, however, for the Nabokovian reading Camus. Some have pointed out the similarities the writers have in their contemplation of the absurd, despite their vast differences in style. Further, it is definitely possible to employ the technique of “reading with the spine” when reading Camus’s masterpiece The Stranger as the novel is neither cerebral nor submerged in emotion but rather a curious in-between (something that can also be said of Absurdity as a philosophy). In the end, it’s important to remember that while comparing these author’s philosophies may be a fun exercise, they are still just that — philosophies. And philosophies are only useful in as far as they can help us make sense of the world, as opposed to make it more convoluted.
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.