by George Saunders
Saunders writes sick, funny stories.
In the six stories and one novella in this collection, culture has collapsed. Capitalism has run amok, slavery is legal, and the environment is so toxic mutations are commonplace. The system, such as it is, is so big the working cogs in the machine are in near-constant danger of being crushed to death or mangled in the moving parts. And the workers are, arguable, the lucky ones.
The unlucky ones in this warped near-future are the hoards of dispossessed (those with no income, no property) and Flawed (folks with genetic mutations, like withered legs or claws instead of toes) who would be, presumably, thrilled to get treated like crap by power-hungry middle managers.
Saunders seems to be fond of well-meaning guys who can’t quite get their shit together. His main characters are men whose hearts are in the right place, but tend to lack will, smarts, or luck. The world is a vicious place, and having good intentions doesn’t get these guys very far: they accidentally shred a boy in a pool, get sent to jail, erase their minds, get killed.
In these stories, Saunders slams the work-obsessed mindset and therapeutic/recovery programs. Prime examples: taking an Employee Loyalty Oath, and practicing Hatred Abatement Breathing. Folks can be nasty funny when considering each other, as one guy says of a coworker: “My point is, even traveling celebrity Jell-O-wrestlers have more class than Leon.”
What really makes Saunders’s work tick is the relentless questioning of what makes a person human when they are forced to live in inhuman conditions — how can you tell anymore? CivilWarLand and its ilk is not a reality I’d ever want to live in, but sure as hell would love to read more stories about.