In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.
George Saunders is one of the greatest short story writers alive today. He is currently positioned to become a household name (well, in houses lined with books), but he has been killing it for nearly two decades. The New York Times hailed his latest short story collection, The Tenth of December, as the “best book you’ll read this year.” Saunders came to the art by a strange path. He graduated from college in 1981 with a B.S. in geophysical engineering and spent some time prospecting for an oil company in Indonesia. He then found a job as a technical writer for an environmental engineering company. By the late 90s, he’d published CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and had gotten a professorship at Syracuse. His unorthodox literary training leads to a fresh and interesting style. Saunders himself describes the phenomenon as “just me working inefficiently, with flawed tools, in a mode I don’t have sufficient background to really understand. Like if you put a welder to designing dresses.”
A welder-designed dress would at least be an interesting and new thing, and that’s what Saunders’ stories are. The humor, language usage, and emotional impact of his stories are what makes them powerful. Saunders employs dark humor and tragicomedy to great effect. This feature of his stories has drawn comparisons between him and Kurt Vonnegut, and like Kurt Vonnegut, some of his humor is laugh-out-loud entertaining, but it is mostly the humor that comes from the sudden revelation of a deep truth, humor that does not manifest in laughter but in a swift body-blow to something a lot deeper in you than simple amusement. It is absurd humor, and it mostly arises from horrifying situations and people living through them as if they were more or less normal. The best example of this humor comes from the first sentence of “The 400-Pound CEO”
At noon another load of raccoons comes in and Claude takes them out back of the office and executes them with a tire iron.
Murdering animals is not ha-ha funny, but the shock of that situation, the world of the story in which a company exists that surreptitiously murders raccoons with automotive maintenance implements, and the realization that, if it were lucrative, there would probably be a company in real life that did exactly that, combine to create a much more profound, more affecting, and less flashy humor than the standard fare.
You would not believe the profit margin on these things
Another example, from “Tenth of December,” is the interior monologue of a not-too-bright kid who is remembering his runaway father:
Dad had once said, Trust your mind, Rob. If it smells like shit but has writing across it that says Happy Birthday and a candle stuck down in it, what is it?
Is there icing on it? he’d said.
Dad had done that thing of squinting the eyes when an answer was not quite there yet.
Sure, basic humor comes from how stupid the kid is. Stupidity is a very deep well for amusement, but couched and laced throughout that more mundane entertainment is deep emotional involvement. The dad is gone, the kid is remembering his advice, the kid has to deal with being stupid, and the kid is remembering his dad “squinting his eyes” as he most likely thinks about how stupid his son is, which dealing with fatherly disappointment is par for the course vis-a-vis life, but this boy’s father actually kicked standard disappointment up to abandonment.
The language Saunders favors tends to be simple and immediate, as most of his narrators spend a lot of time relaying the stream-of-consciousness of his main characters, and very few people think with showboating words while navigating the trenches of actual life. The informal style and immediacy add punch to the emotional impact, so the reader experiences what the character experiences with very little processing lag or separation. More so than simple language, the situations and descriptions of the characters creates a massive emotional impact. Saunders does not choose as his subject big heroes and villains. He explores not the grandness of exalted victory or crushing defeat, but the petty brokenness of everyday life and the small consolations wrested from it, which is what most people actually deal with. These small consolations are affecting because they are all we can manage, but also, if we shift our perspective, all we need.
It just so happens that a lot of his stories are science fiction. I got a chance to ask him about his sci-fi chops, and he responded that he wasn’t a superfan (as in, he has not seen every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation), but that he really enjoyed writing in that mode and that it helped break you out of lame writing and bad habits, which, yes, a lot of self-consciously literary books are full of lame writing and bad habits (I really hated the 100 pages I read of that book). Saunders’ writing style is mostly absurd and surrealistic. Many of his stories are full of ghosts, ridiculous people, and nonsensical events. In a decent number of these stories, the enhanced-reality style turns to science fiction. Why am I reviewing this author as a science fiction author if he just dips his beak in every few stories? He is quite simply one of the best practitioners of the form. One of the methods by which SF gains it power is cognitive estrangement, wherein the author presents a reality that is clearly different from the empirical environment of both the author and the reader, but is a plausible extension of it. In this dynamic, the clash between the world of the story and the real world brings heightened clarity to the readers’ perception how things actually are. Saunders’ SF is great at this. It is only a hop, a skip, and a jump into the future, and only extrapolates the technologies and societal norms that form the most rampant pathologies at play in U.S. culture today, namely capitalism and fear. One story takes the form of a sales representative from KidLuv trying to dissuade a dissatisfied mother from returning her I CAN SPEAK!™, which is a molded mask you fit over your infant’s face that, through an implanted speaker, gives the impression that your child can talk. This is of course at the cost of the comfort of the infant. Another chronicles the penalties a man incurs by taking off his shoes to walk more comfortably in NYC, incidentally preventing the advertising sensors in the sidewalks from reading the identification tags in his shoes and projecting the most relevant ads in front of him as he walks.
Completely implausible storyline.
Another is about a new type of incarceration, where prisoners can opt to go to research stations, receive a MobiPak™ (an implanted drug delivery system) and participate in dangerous pharmaceutical research. The current ascendancy of consumer culture and capitalism make these possible futures all too plausible, and by forcing his readers to consider these futures, he highlights the dehumanizing and unsustainable nature of the present system. Above all, he hammers home the perennial truth, formulated by his forebear, that there’s only one rule: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
Read these stories. They hit hard, and they hit deep. Saunders has said that a novel is just a story that hasn’t yet figured out to be brief, and the power behind the brevity of his stories gives a lot of support to that statement. More than anything else I have been reading lately, they have an active effect on what I think and who I am. Read these to be changed, to be awoken. It sounds cliché as all hell to say that, but just because something is cliché does not mean it does not apply, and one of Saunders’ main goals in writing is to break us out of habitual thought patterns and to crack us open to what is really going on – in the world, with other people, within ourselves. If you’re still not convinced, my last shot is one of his quotations about literature, which is one of the most accurate I’ve ever read:
Fiction is a kind of compassion-generating machine that saves us from sloth. Is life kind or cruel? Yes, Literature answers. Are people good or bad? You bet, says Literature. But unlike other systems of knowing, Literature declines to eradicate one truth in favor of another.
Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: The New York Times