“Escape From Spiderhead”

George Saunders is a New York Times bestselling author whose work has appeared in numerous publications including The New Yorker, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, and GQ. Saunders has written several books, both fiction and non-fiction, and has won several awards, including National Magazine Awards. Saunders currently teaches at Syracuse University.

Image credit: Bill Armstrong

In the futuristic story “Escape from Spiderhead,” George Saunders has created the Spiderhead: a testing center, an alternative to jail, which administers drugs that control emotions to murderers.

Questions to consider:

1. Imagine these drugs put into practice, in our world. What do you think would happen? What commentary do you think Saunders is making about the use of artificially-simulated/stimulated emotions? About drugs?

2. We’ve often talked about punctuation; particularly, the excessive use of anything other than periods, commas, and quotation marks. How does Saunders’s use of further punctuation affect the story? How does it enhance or detract? How would the character voice be altered without the punctuation?

3. As the protagonist undergoes a series of tests, he experiences a gradual emotional and psychological awakening. To what extent are the drugs responsible for his awakening? Is such a place justifiable as a rehabilitation for murderers? Do you believe the protagonist achieves redemption in the ending?

4. Consider the themes in this story: playing God, autonomy (especially forced sex and forced murder, but also forced actions of any kind), love (esp. that this can be created and taken away on command, and that every human being deserves to be loved), the concept of making a “small” sacrifice for the greater good, murder, and nature versus nurture. What commentary do you think Saunders is making on these subjects? How do these themes interact to enhance the commentary?

5. Consider the use of the second person in section IV. Does this breaking of the fourth wall detract from the story? Enhance it? How?

6. Did you notice the way Saunders uses character voice and diction, particularly re the “Verbulace”? The transition is subtle yet the difference is clear. Did you feel as though the protagonist’s experience was, on some level, simulated for you, the reader? How does this affect your understanding of this story?

Read Saunders’s answers to some of these questions in his interview with the New Yorker. (It’s long, but so worth reading. Many gems of writerly wisdom, and hilarious at the end!)


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