BOOKS: Liberation Day: George Saunders

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Dec. 17—Harlan Ellison was born too soon.

Ellison was a master of the short story. He was often labeled a "science fiction" or "fantasy" writer and not always in a positive way. He had hordes of fans and readers especially in the 1970s and '80s.

But the literati ignored him because he wrote in that "fantasy/sci fi" milieu — he hated the term "sci fi," by the way — railed against it. He wrote about honest, human emotions and societal experiences and norms but braced them in the often gritty storytelling style of wonder, the fantastic, the future, the past, elsewhere, what might have been and what could one day be.

Now, readers can open books by numerous "serious" authors and find frameworks similar to Ellison's approach.

George Saunders is one such highly praised author. and the praise is well deserved.

His short story, "Escape from Spiderhead," was adapted into the science fiction Netflix movie "Spiderhead" starring Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller. It was a short story from Saunders' short story collection, "Tenth of December," which was named one of The New York Times Review's 10 Best Books and a finalist for the National Book Award.

"Lincoln in the Bardo" delves into the dead residents of a crypt where the spirit of Abraham Lincoln's young son, Willie, resides and tries to comfort his grieving father. It is a powerful human study set amid a ghost story. Saunders deservedly won the Booker Prize for this novel-length book.

"Liberation Day," his latest collection, contains nine stories — at least a third have fantastic elements/themes that would be familiar to regular Ellison readers.

"Ghoul" follows a morally complex character living with the residents of an underground remains of an amusement park, where lies or the perception of speaking an untruth can lead to an immediate death sentence.

"Elliot Spencer" is a story about an old man who is "reprogrammed" to become a professional protestor.

The title story, which opens the book's first 60-plus pages, centers on poor people who trade having their minds blanked to become performers in order to support their families. Here, one blanked performer has no memory of his past life. He has fallen in love with the lonely, frustrated woman of the house while her husband programs him and fellow blanked-performers to recreate Custer's Last Stand.

Ellison readers would not be surprised to find any one of these story frameworks and themes in a Harlan Ellison short story collection.

Good to know writers of Saunders' caliber can use these devices to explore various human and societal themes and be lauded for it. A shame that Ellison was never recognized by a wider audience and by critics for doing the same thing.