If you haven’t yet picked up this book, do it. If you’re a writer and you haven’t yet picked up this book, really do it. If you’re a writer writes fiction and you haven’t yet picked up this book: you’re missing out if you don’t do it. This is one of the best story collections I remember reading in a long time.
Tenth of December is a thematically linked collection of stories set in a not so distant future where technogadgets and pharmacological products will demand more self-scrutiny of the average consumer. His stories point towards the absurdities of a society wherein even the most trivial choices reverberate with moral innuendos: what may be the consequences of manipulating emotions for commercial ends? To what ends will we go to justify mistreatments of unprotected members of society when every purchase we make, every ambition we secretly nurse, may have serious implications for others?
In “Escape From Spiderhead” a convict is a lab rat for a commercial pharmaceutical company that tests emotion enhancement drugs. “In The Sempica Girls Diary” a middle class father trying to make his children happy buys into a dehumanizing practice that victimizes illegal immigrants. And in “My Chivalrous Fiasco” an employee of a Medieval-themed entertainment facility is bribed to silence by way of a mind-enhancing “upgrade” to a Pacing Guard position in the live and interactive Medieval tech show.
Saunders’ terrifying scenarios are populated by glib, self-justifying morons but the stories crackle with wit. In “My Chivalric Fiasco” the medical enhancement KnightLyfe is designed to gift its patient with verbal abilities presumedly realistic to medieval speech: “What ho! Had charged. Up crude ladders, with manly Imprecations.” (I still laugh when I read that one). When the recently returned veteran in “Home” returns to his own haunts he walks into a store, but isn’t sure if it is a store because he can’t tell what they’re selling. The MiiVOXmax device that he picks up looks like a tag rather than a product. When he asks what the product is, the retail clerk responds, “It’s more like what it is for, is how I’d say it.” Naturally the veteran asks what it is for, but the clerk replies “this is probably more the one for you,” and offers him an identical item called a MiiVOXmin, and its purpose is equally obscure.
In spite of the frustrating and often tragic events, the characters are each so well-intentioned, so hopeful and so full of heart that it’s hard to come out of reading even the most pessimistic of these stories without coming out at the end of it with a sense of optimism for the future and elation for the general good heartedness of people. In “Tenth of December,” the collection’s title story, a cancer patient resolves on committing suicide, but ends up involved in a rescue situation. In “The Semplica Girls Diaries” the middle-aged disgruntled father desiring status and money bankrupts himself to protect his children. In “Escape from Spiderhead” it’s the life-sentence convict who is able to make the most moral decision, and to perform the most selfless act.
These beautiful stories each glow with Saunder’s imagination, his vision of a world ruled by unaccountable, money-driven institutions tempered by the tender and altruistic instincts of its most ordinary of its employees and customers. Every story leaves us with the sense that human nature itself has been redeemed, its thoughtless ambition in the end always overwhelmed by the simple need to connect to our loved ones, and to do what’s best for others, in spite of ourselves.