Brave New World, a speculative work by British writer Aldous Huxley, explores a society where people are conditioned via drugs and genetic engineering to live stable, highly pleasurable, but totally meaningless lives. One pop of a pill, and negative feelings like sadness, anger, or envy vanish. In the brave new world, “everyone belongs to everyone else,” and pleasure supplants purpose.
A Story for Our Age
That book was written in 1932. Fast forward to the twenty-first century and another fictional work, albeit shorter, goes arguably even deeper than Huxley’s magnum opus. The short story Escape from Spiderhead by George Saunders is about a group of inmates being tested by mood-altering drugs in a facility nicknamed “Spiderhead” for its nebulous layout. The story appeared in The New Yorker in 2010, was featured in Saunders’s collection Tenth of December, and was adapted into a film just last year starring Miles Teller and Chris Hemsworth. In an age where drug use is ubiquitous, (not excluding the socially acceptable kinds of drugs like social media) the story maintains its relevance and has captured the imagination of thousands of readers since its publication. One of the core questions of the story (and as Russian short story master Anton Chekhov noted, fiction should not strive to answer the question, but to formulate the question rightly) is whether it is possible to drug someone into genuine love.
The story starts out with the narrator, an inmate named Jeff, in a room with a woman, Heather. The director of Spiderhead, Abnesti, asks their consent to inject a drug into their systems, and they do. As a result, the two well up in desire for each other. Suddenly, Heather is the most beautiful woman Jeff’s ever laid eyes on. He immediately convinces himself that he not only desires this woman, but he loves this woman, and their sexual encounter seems to verify his feelings. However, the drug wears off. The two are left in the room undressed and embarrassed, no longer able to see each other as anything more than moderately handsome strangers. Another woman, Rachel, enters the room, and the same thing happens. They enjoy drug induced passion and then suffer an acute sense of shame after the thrill is over and the effects of the drug wear off.
Abnesti then calls Jeff into headquarters and asks him to choose between the two women. When Jeff is unable to give a preference, since he knows neither woman personally, Abnesti declares,
We have unlocked a mysterious eternal secret. What a fantastic game-changer! Say someone can’t love? Now he or she can. We can make him. Say someone loves too much? Or loves someone deemed unsuitable by his or her caregiver? We can tone that s**t right down. Say someone is blue, because of true love? We step in, or his or her caregiver does: blue no more. No longer, in terms of emotional controllability, are we ships adrift. No one is. We see a ship adrift, we climb aboard, install a rudder. Guide him/her toward love. Or away from it. You say, ‘All you need is love’? Look, here comes ED289/290.-George Saunders, Escape from Spiderhead | The New Yorker
Jeff’s Telling Sadness
Abnesti thinks he’s solved the problem of love and lack thereof by parsing it from the realm of choice and turning into an issue of chemical imbalance. Input drug, output love. But could it ever be that simple? Earlier in the story, after his encounters with Heather and Rachel, Jeff reflects,
I guess I was sad that love was not real? Or not all that real, anyway? I guess I was sad that love could feel so real and the next minute be gone, and all because of something Abnesti was doing.
His thoughts encapsulate the central moral question of the dystopian tale: is love more than the reactions and processes in our brains? In addition, are humans just machines made of meat? Jeff’s sadness suggests that he is more than the sinister Abnesti assumes. He is a soul, not simply a body with a brain attached that can be manipulated at will. But even so, how can he escape the powerful illusion of the drug, and who is there to tell him any differently?
The story doesn’t stop there. More experimentation and twists plunge Jeff deeper into the Spiderhead. Will he ever escape the web? Also, steeped in our own drug-ridden age, will we?