Escape from Spiderhead

Science fiction can tell us a great deal about the future because it asks us to think with all of our faculties, not just about the nuts and bolts of a technology, but about how people will use it, and shape their lives around it. George Saunders imagines a medical technology that can make people fall into and out of love, harmlessly, but medicine does not appear from thin air. It takes the hard work of researchers, and the suffering and risk of test subjects, to bring about a new miracle cure.

That is to say: a desire would arise and, concurrently, the satisfaction of that desire would also arise. It was as if (a) I longed for a certain (heretofore untasted) taste until (b) said longing became nearly unbearable, at which time (c) I found a morsel of food with that exact taste already in my mouth, perfectly satisfying my longing.

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What might it be like to be the subject of such an experiment? To feel chemicals flowing through you at someone else’s command, bringing with them sudden lurches of emotion and capability, new ideas that before would have been beyond dreams? Yes, this is science fiction, but as controversy over ‘female Viagra’ and the 400 drugs for memory enhancement in the development pipeline show, very soon, this will be science fact. The researchers in Spiderhead are shallowly depicted as villains, and fortunately, no real-world ethics review board would approve their work, but experiments with similar ends must be done, if we are to know these new drugs are safe and effective.

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