George Saunders Alien Illustration
Illustration: Thomas Allen
Recently, a friend said to me, "Hey, George, if a space alien beamed you up to his ship and demanded that you explain what being human is like, what would you say?"

"Well," I said, "I'd advise the alien to spend a few days reading short stories." Short stories are the deep, encoded crystallizations of all human knowledge. They are rarefied, dense meaning machines, shedding light on the most pressing of life's dilemmas. By reading a thoughtfully selected set of them, our alien could, in a few hours, learn everything he needs to know about the way we live. Except how it feels to lose one's car in a parking garage and walk around for like three hours, trying to look as if you know where you're going, so the people driving by—who have easily found their cars, having written the location on their wrists or something—don't think badly of you. I don't think there's a short story about that yet.

Anyway.

"What is this thing called love?" our alien might wonder.

"All right," I'd say. "Your first assignment is Chekhov's beautiful 'Lady with the Dog,' which shows a supposedly casual fling morphing into true love, in fits and starts, even over the objections of the lovers."


"Does that happen often down there?" the alien would ask.

"Yes," I would say. "Though mostly in 19th-century Russia." (No need to give aliens too much detail.)

But, also, it would be important for him to know that not everyone on earth finds love. So, "On the Cart," also by Chekhov—one of the saddest stories ever, in which absolutely nothing happens, except: Lonely person stays lonely.

Do aliens, once in love, ever break up? You'd have to hope so. It would be kind of creepy, all these aliens living monogamously to like age 9,000, making love in that slow, telepathic way they have. And afterward, they do that "brain meld" thing and put their "teeth" back in. Eek. Let's give him "The Three-Day Blow" by Ernest Hemingway, a great breakup story that also has some of the best drunk dialogue in literature. Do aliens get drunk? I heard they do, and that is how the Grand Canyon came to be.

But it's not all about love down here! We're also obsessed with money. So our alien must read Isaac Babel's "In the Basement," the most ecstatic story ever written about class: simple as a joke (poor kid gets invited to a rich kid's house, must—ugh—reciprocate), deep as a parable in the way it shows poverty infecting and freakifying everything it touches. It also contains this killer line, which the alien may find useful back on his planet: "Grandson, I go now to take castor oil, so that I might have something to lay on your grave."

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