The country of Inner Horner is so small that only one of its six citizens can occupy it at any given time, while the other five must stand in a Short Term Residency Zone on soil loaned to them by the (relatively) great and powerful country of Outer Horner. When an unspecified geological event further reduces the inhabitable area of Inner Horner, much commotion over turf and taxes ensues, resulting in the unfortunate rise to power of one Phil, a mealy-mouthed robot-dictator whose brain always seems to fall off its rack into a bowl of chips before he gives a speech. For Hornerites, both inner and outer, are neither animals nor machines, but vaguely biomorphic assemblages of gears and organs. Take female Inner Hornerite Carol, whose allure sets off the political conflict: Phil was captivated by her glossy black filaments and transparent oscillating membranes, the delicate curve of her exposed spine, her habit of demurely scratching one bearing with a furry glovelike appendage...Fabulist George Saunders trademark in his short-story collections, Civil War Land in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, is to portray the world as a theme park run amok, at once cartoonish and sinister. The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, however, unfolds in the safe, lighthearted cadences of a childrens story. The inevitable comparison is to Orwells Animal Farm, but in this novella, Saunders droll brand of literary satire feels more like Lewis Carroll. Like Carroll, Saunders undoes evil by spinning it into clever nonsense, freeing us from fear by replacing it with laughter. THE BRIEF AND FRIGHTENING REIGN OF PHIL | By GEORGE SAUNDERS | Riverhead Books | 134 pages | $13 softcover
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