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5/5: House of Stairs

House of Stairs - William Sleator

Five orphaned teenagers find themselves pushed into a strange room. There’s nothing but stairs that lead them eventually back to the only object beside a primitive toilet and a water source: a machine that delivers their food. But what do they have to do to earn that food?

This is a short book – only 166 pages for the paperback. I’d never heard of it until my wife sent me a message on Facebook (She found it while I was asleep and didn’t want to forget). As soon as I saw the premise, I ordered a copy. It’s a testament to the story that my wife read this when she was perhaps ten or eleven and still remembers it forty years later.

I can see why. Last night, I had forty pages to read and even though it was getting late and I needed to be up for work the next day, I had to finish it.

If I have a complaint about the story, it was the fact that all the characters survived. The civilisation I read about that would allow this experiment would have no problems letting them starve, I suspect.

The setup is chilling in its simplicity. Take five teens, drop them in a minimalist prison of stairs and condition them to act bizarrely with the reward of food. Then condition them to fight, condition them to move without thinking on the production of lights and sound. Condition them to begin to hate each other. Feed them when they become violent.

My wife asked me last night if it’s something I would have read when I was ten or eleven, its target age group. I probably would have, but I wouldn’t have believed it would have been possible for human beings to become sociopathic so easily.

But since I was that age, I’ve found out about things like The Milgram Experiment and The Stanford Prison Experiment, and I’ve learned differently. I’ve come across the phrase “Civilisation is only nine missed meals from anarchy”, and I’ve learned differently.

It’s the most terrifying truth of all: How easy it is to strip the humanity from someone and turn them into a monster. To get on a bus with a bomb strapped to your belt, to drop the Zyklon B down a tube. To see our fellow primates as something below us. Untermensch, indeed.

The circuit in our heads that gives us our compassion is so very, very fragile. How easy it is for us to short circuit it, to trip some mental fuse. To take a human being and break them is so very easy and so utterly terrifying.

There are characters in this story that refuse to bow to the machine, who start a resistance. I wish I would be as brave as them if I were in the same situation.