Escape from Spiderhead is a tale that looks into a dystopian future, where convicts can either enter experimental drug testing programs or serve time in prison. After Jeff was convicted for murder, his mother had spent all her savings to get him out of real jail, and put him to a drug testing program. So Jeff is now a test subject for a new drug which attempts to control human emotions and abilities.
As a part of the experiment, test subjects have MobiPak™ attached to their backs and doctors remotely administer the drugs. There is an assortment of drugs under testing. Verbaluce™ makes the subjects express themselves eloquently, Vivistif™ helps subjects to be sexually aroused and feel love, and Darkenfloxx™ sends subjects to deep, dark holes. When the experiment grows darker and more disturbing, Jeff’s only hope of redemption is to Escape from Spiderhead.
In his interview with The New Yorker, when asked “Seems to me there are many layers of sociopolitical commentary here. Do you have a particular target in mind, or are there several? Animal-testing? Death row? Big pharma?,” Saunders responds, “I think what I do (more by inclination than design) is to put these surficial, quasi-political elements into my stories, just as a means of getting the story told; that is, their function may be more distractive than instructive. A reader might feel, at first, “Ah, I see, this story is making a social commentary—that’s why it exists,” and then, while she’s distracted, the story does … something else. Hopefully, something a little more, if you see what I mean.” And for me, how Jeff achieved his redemption is the ‘something else’ in this short story.