The book is over ten years old, and on its current cover is a taxidermied elk. Because of this, the short story collection Pastoralia probably wouldn’t grab the SF-leaning bookstore-lurker. Sure, it’s possible you may have heard whispers to the effect that George Saunders was some kind of heir to the Vonnegut magic. But you might not assume that had to do with content. Maybe, you’d think, like Vonnegut, Saunders is just good at the cynical one-liner, but not necessarily SF. Luckily, Saunders is good at the cynical one-liner, and most of the stories in Pastoralia do comment on reality. But do they take place there? No. And it all starts with a speculation on how to get through a crappy, and very science fictional, day job.
In terms of a science fiction short story about a job, “Paycheck” by Philip K. Dick sort of holds a special place here. Inherent to the premise of “Paycheck” is the notion that the main character’s memory has been erased, meaning the minutia of actual day jobs isn’t really explored. If this was a void in SF lit, it’s been filled by George Saunders. The title novella of this collection; “Pastoralia” depicts a man and a woman working in a cave where they pretend to be cave people. What variety of prehistoric savages they’re actually trying to emulate isn’t entirely clear, and the reader gets the sense the world which the story takes place is rife with a lot of ignorance. Fake floods are created for the sake of the visitors to this combination museum/amusement park. Robot animals graze and the two main characters pretend to catch invisible flies. They’re also not allowed to talk to each other in any kind of spoken language, because doing so would break the illusion.
But of course the characters do talk. They talk a lot. And the problems they’re experiencing aren’t necessarily directly related to their plight in this absurd job. Primarily, their concerned about keeping the job, as management is constantly making veiled overtures that a “remixing” will occur soon, resulting in many people being out of work. The main character grapples with how to cover for his cave-partner, and her increasing incompetence and defiance of the rules. His guilt takes up almost as much of the narrative as the fantastic world which frames it. It’s hard to communicate here is what a unique prose stylist Saunders is. You know he’s kidding a little bit by creating a hyperbolic idea of a shitty job at a strange museum, but you can’t help but feel a little depressed. Ultimately, like a good science fiction story, “Pastoralia” gently causes the reader to think about what it would be like to have such a terrible job. Check out this passage in which the main character meets his new co-worker:
I put out my hand and smile.
She frowns at my hand, like: Since when do cave people shake hands?
She squats and pretends to be catching and eating small bugs.
How she knows how to do that, I do not know. I squat beside her and also pretend to be catching and eating small bugs.
We do this for quite some time. It gets old but she doesn’t stop, and all the time, she’s grunting, and once or twice I could swear she actually catches and eats an actual small bug.
To me, Saunders seems particularly interested in the shows people put on when no on is looking because society demands said performances. What’s tragic about many of the cave scenes is no actual patrons “stick their head in” to check out the faux-cave people when they’re behaving correctly. Instead, people only seem to swing by when they’re breaking character, making the simulation of the savagery all the more tragic. Additionally, the idea that this kind of entertainment is never experienced as an illusion by anyone serves as a second commentary on popular entertainment in general. We know a TV show is a TV show and a book is a book, and we know the cave people in the dioramas in a museum are fake. This story takes this notion one step further and speculates the following: what if in the future, people had to act out cave person antics for money?
Another story in the collection, “Sea Oak,” also asserts a fairly preposterous profession. In this one, the main character works at an all male strip club with an aviation theme called Joysticks. While not inherently science fiction, a suspension of disbelief is certainly needed to get into this one, which Saunders helps you with by employing some seriously dark humor. Despite mining Joysticks for great material, Saunders doesn’t make the story “Sea Oak” simply about a quirky male strip club. Instead, it tells the story of Aunt Bernie returning from the dead after being frightened to death in her own home. In life, Aunt Bernie was an inoffensive moron, who worked at DrugTown and never, ever complained. After she dies, she returns with a vengeance, complete with a plan to turn the lives of her relatives around completely. Her hair and limbs fall off in delicious Beetlejuice fashion, and she’s constantly threatening her nephews with her “powers.” But Aunt Bernie is not a Jacob Marley-type, warning everyone to seize the moment and not make the mistakes she made. Instead, she plans to stay alive too and have lots of sex and power while also telling other people how to fix their lives.
Beyond being a jarring and original story, “Sea Oak” also gestures at a sort of terrible future world. Television shows here include How My Child Died Violently, and The Worst That Could Happen. The latter is described thusly:
A half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never actually occurred, but theoretically could. A kid gets hit by a train and flies into a zoo, where’s eaten by wolves. A man cuts his hand off chopping wood and while wandering around screaming for help is picked up by a tornado and dropped on a preschool during recess and lands on a pregnant teacher.
Notably, Saunders published all these stories prior to the total take-over of reality television. If dark humor and humanistic stories about bizarre minutia are your thing, you’ll love the stories of Pastoralia. As a world-builder, George Saunders might not be as expansive as a hard science fiction writer, but the speculative worlds he does sketch-out or gesture to, are at once convincing, hilarious, and a little too close to home.