Liberation Day – book review

The thing about George Saunders is he always makes you think. This is definitely a set of stories for those who enjoy being intellectually challenged by an unusual world rather than for readers who take comfort in the known and seek familiarity in a story. If you loved Saunders’ prize winning but weird Lincoln in the Bardo, or have pretensions to literature and study his texts on writing craft, hey, here’s a book for you.

His stories often have the theme of some kind of sub-category of humans, exploited or trapped, those who don’t fit the mainstream. Lincoln in the Bardo had this with the dead wandering the graveyard unable to escape purgatory. In this collection, three of the futuristic stories also explore this idea, the sub-groups being exploited by the more powerful who, the way Saunders describes it, are acting within the expectations of prevailing society.

In Liberation Day our re-birthed artists (their memories wiped) are part of the entertainment system of a household along with the amplifiers and the recording equipment, and are kept stacked in the Listening Room. They are brought out for performances, plugged into the wall and programmed through some AI chat bot that our host defines, for example a “City in iambic pentameter: arranged E/W, no river, white, Winter, overrun by cats,” and for another, a city: “Sad, Summer, green-blue, arranged N/S along river, blue-green canoes oriented toward the celebration island like magnetic needles, the lucky shopkeepers and workers dreamily trailing their hands behind them in the cool, clean water, as, with fireworks bursting overhead, they rowed past the orange-brown cafés towards the one bastion of happiness in their disappointing lives.” Our advanced human chat-bots perform the resulting story for Company.

These sound like exercises a tutor would give a creative writing class, which is Saunders’ gig. I wonder if he gets his students to write a piece from these prompts and then compares them to an AI response. Chilling.

‘In the second story in this theme, Ghoul, a whole society is kept below ground in an endless theme park, practising roles for customers who never come. It’s a horrible future based on the premise of “keep ’em busy and they won’t cause trouble” and reminds me a bit of the endless queues in Disneyland, where entertainers and screens distract the lemming-like crowds with look look flashy flashy. It’s terribly disturbing.

Finally, Eliott Spencer, again, features re-programmed people with wiped memories, exploited by a protest movement to weigh-in as thugs. Their operatives treat them kindly, and they gather to practise shouting BastardTurdCreepIdiot! They get punched up a lot. An inkling of memory comes through, but it’s bleak.

The other stories also carry this theme of people marginalised and used. There is line between Saunders’ characters that divides the users from the exploiters. Sometimes the line stretches or breaks, but the ending never appears to be a happy one. Once you’re a human reject, it’s a hard road to happiness.

For all its dystopian misery, I’m glad to read George Saunders once in a while. He has a wild imagination and it’s very clever writing.

Author: Cristina Sanders Blog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

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