How the Written Universe Works: Exploring Theme part 3, Escape From Spiderhead by George Saunders

Several years ago, I took George Saunders’ book, Tenth of December, to the beach as my summer guilty pleasure. For me, the most compelling tale in that collection of short stories was “Escape from Spiderhead.” 

how the universe works themeEscape from Spiderhead is a science fiction story set in a prison. It is built around several themes. The central theme is crime and punishment, and Saunders grabs hold of this theme and runs with it.

He asks us to consider where punishment ends and inhumanity begins.

He gives us the character of Ray Abnesti, a scientist developing pharmaceuticals and using convicted felons as guinea pigs as part of the justice system. The wider world has forgotten about those whose crimes deserve punishment, whose fate goes unknown and unlamented.

Saunders poses questions that challenge us to re-examine our own virtue. Do we have the right to treat a person inhumanely just because they have committed a crime?

Wikipedia gives us this Synopsis: 

Because he was convicted of a crime, Jeff has been sent to an experimental prison where inhabitants are guinea pigs for a man named Ray Abnesti, a sort of warden who develops pharmaceuticals. In an experiment to determine the strength of love, Abnesti puts Jeff in a room with a woman named Heather. Neither finds the other very attractive until a drug is administered and they suddenly fall deeply in love with each other and have sex. This continues until the drug stops being administered when they suddenly lose all love for each other. The process is repeated with Jeff and a woman named Rachel. The next day, Abnesti brings both Heather and Rachel into a room and asks Jeff to decide which woman should be drugged with Darkenfloxx, a drug that causes extreme mental and physical distress. Jeff wants no one to be hurt, but has no preference as to which should endure the drug. Satisfied, Abnesti decides not to administer the drug. Later, Jeff finds himself in a room with another man who he realizes also had sex with Rachel and Heather. He realizes that Abnesti is asking one of the women which one of the men should be given Darkenfloxx. The same result happens each time, and the drug is never administered.

Later, after Abnesti presents the love drug he is developing to his superiors, he says he must go into greater depth and gives Heather Darkenfloxx, saying that Jeff must say exactly what he feels while he watches Heather suffer in order to prove he has no romantic feelings for her. But the Darkenfloxx is so damaging that Heather commits suicide to escape the pain. When Abnesti reveals that he will do the same thing to Rachel to determine whether Jeff has a romantic attachment, Jeff refuses to participate. He insists that the drug should not be used. Abnesti leaves to get a warrant to administer drugs to Jeff that will force him to comply. To prevent Rachel from being tortured, Jeff administers Darkenfloxx to himself, and while under its influence kills himself. A voice tells him that his body is salvageable, and he can return to life, but Jeff declines, knowing he’s had enough of life. Jeff’s final emotion is happiness that, in the end, he did not kill and never would again. [1]

The_Pyramid_Conflict_Tension_PacingSaunders takes a deep dive into the theme of redemption in this tale. He didn’t take the expected path with his plot arc and didn’t opt for revenge by giving Abnesti the drug, which was the obvious choice.

Instead, he takes us on a journey through Jeff’s personal redemption, which is why this story impacted me.

Of course, the scenario is exaggerated, as it is set in a future world. It exposes the callous view modern society has regarding criminals and what punishment they might deserve.

That raises the theme of morality vs. immorality. Who is the real criminal here, Jeff, Abnesti, or the justice system that would even consider funding such a prison?

Then there is the theme of compassion. Abnesti explores love vs. lust for his own amusement. The different drugs Jeff is given prove that both are illusionary and fleeting. Yet Saunders implies that the truth of love is compassion. Jeff’s action shows us that he is a man of compassion.

What does it mean to be human? This theme is a foundational trope of Science Fiction. Saunders shows us that to be human is to be aware and compassionate.

Abnesti demonstrates that one may be genetically and technically of the human species, yet not human in spirit. They are not aware of others as people; without that awareness, they have no compassion, no humanity.

A common theme in science fiction is the use of drugs to alter people’s behavior and control them emotionally. That theme is explored in detail here, ostensibly as a means to do away with prisons and reform prisoners. But really, these experiments are for Abnesti, a psychopath, to exercise his passion for the perverse and inhumane and for him to have power over the helpless.

Jeff is aware of the crimes he and his fellow prisoners have committed. Still, he sees Heather struggling with her dose of Darkenfloxx and states his belief that every person is worthy of love.

Spiderhead (the movie) premiered in Sydney on June 11, 2022, and was released on Netflix on June 17, 2022. The film received mixed reviews from critics.

Tenth_of_DecemberI will say now – the story and the movie are two different things. The film bears some resemblance to the story it is based on but – it is not that story. All writers should be aware that you no longer control the direction of your story when you sell the movie rights.

In Escape from Spiderhead, Saunders’ voice, style, and worldbuilding are impeccable. It is a stark journey into the depths to which some humans are capable of sinking in the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

This short story was as powerful as any novel I’ve ever read, proving that a good story stays with the reader long after the final words have been read, no matter the length. His questions resonate, asking us to think about our true motives.

Where do we draw the line between crime and punishment? When is a legal act really a form of criminal behavior? What does it mean to be human?

For me, that is what good science fiction does—it raises questions and requires us to think.

Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Tenth of December: Stories,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed June 27, 2022).

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