Binaries and Humanity in Escape From Spiderhead

Jeff and Abnesti display a clear binary relationship, in which Abnesti power over Jeff. Jeff, a criminal, has to submit to submit to the scientific experiments conducted by Abnesti. Yet, Jeff and Abnesti interact as friends would, exchanging friendly banter and joking around with one another. While their relationship is friendly on a superficial level, one must wonder what Abnesti’s motivation is for his kindness. Regardless of how he interacts with test subjects, they still must participate in the experiments. He does not gain anything from being kind, and he wonders about the superficiality of his actions. He wonders if he is kind for kindness’ sake, or if he is “a monster” (Spiderhead, 68). Abnesti’s openness about his feelings makes him appear human to Jeff, which contrasts with Abnesti’s own wonderings about his humanity. Jeff views Abnesti as an equal, and although Abnesti treats Jeff as an equal, Abnesti is aware of and ok with the binary that gives him power.

Kyle is a Killer

At the end of “Victory Lap” by George Saunders, Alison wakes up from her dream and her parents tell her that she ran outside, yelled, and stopped Kyle from killing the kidnapper. However, I think Alison’s parents are lying to her so she is not traumatized by the events. At the end of the kidnapper’s point of view, he says “He closed his eyes and waited and was not at peace at all but instead felt the beginnings of a terrible dread welling up inside him, and if that dread kept going at the current rate, he realized in a flash of insight, there was a name for the place he would be then, and it was Hell.” (25) This sentence can be perceived two ways. 1: he would be in Hell, it hasn’t happened yet, and this is more of a hypothetical situation; or 2: it WAS Hell, it happened, the kidnapper has died and gone to Hell. The use of the word “was” rather than “would be” makes me believe that the correct reading is the latter. In addition, at the time, Alison was shaking and scared for her life and seemed like she was in no state to be able to go outside and yell at Kyle to stop. Also, Kyle was so enraged and determined that I don’t think he would stop on his own. These facts lead me to believe that Kyle really did kill Alison’s kidnapper, and Alison’s parents are lying to her to protect her from feeling like his death was her fault.

Jeff’s Perception of Love

I find it really interesting how love is shown in this short story as being only sexual. Jeff learns nothing about Heather or Rachel as people, they don’t laugh together or know each other’s favorite things, and yet they claim to be in love because they had sex three times. When talking about Heather, Jeff says “And I was definitely still feeling love for her… Why do you think they call it ‘making love’? That is what we had just made three times: love.” (51). This means that Abnesti/the drug creators also share the same ideas about love, since they are the ones that created the love drug to do that. It seems that everyone in this story just has one idea of what love is, and it doesn’t seem to go much deeper than physical attraction.

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.

Rats

George Saunders is a master of writing stories with authentic details and relevant imagery, and tackling serious topics with a certain nod to humor. A striking example of which is his use of the rat tattoo. “Rogan had a tattoo of a rat on his neck, a rat that had just been knifed and was crying. But even through its tears it was knifing a smaller rat, who just looked surprised” (59). This small passage actually reflects the dynamic of the story quite well. If we were to assign characters to the different aspects of the tattoo, one could argue the larger rat is Jeff, and the smaller rat is Heather. Jeff knows what Darkenfloxx does to a person, he has had it done to himself before, yet he is willing to allow Heather to be Darkenfloxxed. At the same time, Heather has no idea what her fate is, and she is taken by just as much surprise as the smaller rat. One has to wonder who knifed the larger rat. Fitting within the metaphor, Abnesti would be the obvious culprit, but there’s no imagery to symbolize him. Perhaps the fact that the rats are present, while he is not, represents that through the pain, Jeff and the other victims still have humanity, while Abnesti has none.