I’m a big fan of George Saunders, who is probably the best-known short story writer working in America today. At his best, Saunders’s visions of broken possible futures remind me of my favorite author, Kurt Vonnegut. Like Vonnegut, it feels wrong to characterize Saunders’s work as science-fiction, but he does seem appropriately concerned with it means for humanity that we have centered technology in our lives and ceded so much to it already.
The dark possibilities of tech are at the heart of the title story, which is the first and best of the collection. Liberation Day is narrated by a man who has apparently had his memory wiped in order to work as in-home entertainment for a wealthy family. Along with two other people, the narrator delivers orations upon request. Events build to a crescendo when the owner of the home splurges on an expensive “performance” of the Battle of Little Bighorn, which nearly proves fatally ironic.
In this and several other stories, Saunders uses language with a clear purpose. In all his stories involving futuristic tech, language has seemingly devolved. There is less art and nuance in the spoken word, and more reliance on direct communication of core concepts and objects. Words are shorter, and sentences clearer, even if the grammar and the prose leave a lot to be desired. In “Ghoul,” the narrator is a worker in a bizarre underground carnival that has been operating for decades and developed a totalitarian system of self-policing wherein no one is allowed to express any doubt or misgivings about what they are doing. In “Elliot Spencer,” Saunders playfully invokes the concept of fake protestors with a story of political groups training apparent automatons in the art of demonstration.
Another preoccupation of Saunders’s is ethics. Mostly, he delights in showing us how slippery and conditional our value systems really are. In “The Mom of Bold Action” a writer and her husband both go to some really dark places when an emotionally-disturbed man pushes their son on a city street. “A Thing at Work” follows three co-workers who all hold each other to much different standards then they hold themselves. In “Mother’s Day” a chance run-in between a widow and her husband’s former mistress leads to parallel narratives in which each woman goes to great lengths to justify their own behavior, with disastrous results. And in “Love Letter,” a grandfather living in an American that has slid into fascism advises his grandson on a tricky situation, urging caution while simultaneously lamenting his own failures to do more.
The collection is rounded out with a couple of minor stories. In “Sparrow,” a community watches in wonder as two rather ordinary people come together and make a rather extraordinarily good couple. And in the closing story, “My House,” a real-estate transaction falls apart as, mysteriously, the house and buyer find themselves falling suddenly into decay.
On the whole, Liberation Day feels like a minor work for completist fans only. Outside of the title story, the collection mostly fizzles out. Some stories feel a little indulgent, like in the didactic politics of “Love Letter.” And the themes of “Liberation Day”, “Ghoul”, and “Elliot Spencer” are too repetitive, dulling their impact. While these stories are identifiably Saunders’s, they are not him at his best.