"Oh, sure," we say. "Many pleasures." One thing we humans really like to do is pass judgment on someone and let that opinion calcify so we can enjoy the resulting feeling of smug superiority. Well, at least I do. Although the pleasure never lasts long, as demonstrated by "Dance of the Happy Shades" by Alice Munro, "The Deacon" by Mary Gordon, and Raymond Carver's "A Small, Good Thing." In each, the reader is led to a comfortable place of harshness, where writer and reader conspire to dislike/look down upon a character. Then comes the reversal:The reader finds he has (wrongly) sided with intolerance and unkindness. This is, perhaps, the quintessential earthling moment: when we find that we have underestimated one of our fellows. But in literature it is also a sweet moment, because the reader's shame is evidence that he still knows good from evil and prefers the good. Now take a look at our alien: Has he, too, resolved henceforth to be more generous?

If so, he may be human after all.

George Saunders is the author of the award-winning short-story collection Tenth of December and, most recently, Congratulations, By the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness.


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