Here’s a good story to read. It almost (almost) makes me sorry that Ted Chiang has a story in Eclipse 2 that is easily up to his usual standards, because I think Paolo Bacigalupi deserves a Hugo, and “The Gambler” could otherwise have won him one. It is a very fine piece of work, which manages to find a new angle on — and, not insignificantly when considering award chances, a new tone with which to explore — Bacigalupi’s trademark environmental and globalisation concerns.
In the very near future (itself not actually a venue Bacigalupi has really used; his best stories have tended to be set after some ecological deadline has passed), Ong is a refugee from Laos who has found a new home and a job in Los Angeles. A couple of flashbacks involving Ong’s father flesh out this backstory, but most of the tale revolves around Ong’s work as an online journalist for a large media conglomerate. The depiction of a data-dense newsphere — referred to as “the malestrom” — is good, vivid and chilling; stories “bloom” into existence, as explosions might over a battlefield, and reporters are spoken of as raising and caring for and sustaining their biggest stories as they might a child.
Unfortunately, the stories Ong writes — exposes about the loss of the genetic archive of an extinct butterfly, or mismanagement of water recycling — don’t bring in the clicks, certainly not compared to his colleague’s latest celebrity paedophilia scoop. Ong is threatened with redundancy unless the hit-rate on his stories improves, and out of generosity a colleague sets up an interview with a pop princess called Kulaap, another Laos exile; she ends up trying to save Ong from himself, when his instincts tell him to try to use the interview as a platform for calling attention to the plight of his home country.
There’s an unavoidable element of meta about “The Gambler”, never more prominent than when Kulaap tells Ong, with a sigh, that “No one reads a depressing story, at least, not more than once”, and Ong responds by insisting (quite rightly) that his stories are real news. Thus (the suspicion is unavoidable) does Bacigalupi deal with his reputation for miserablism. But the reader is never nudged into noticing this parallel — you need information external to the story to see it — and the story instead wisely spends its time deepening Ong’s quiet but firm sincerity. The end of the “The Gambler” is probably the most touching thing Bacigalupi has yet written: what Ong gambles on is human nature, and Bacigalupi makes us want him to win.
In other news: not dead yet, just busy. I’ll be at the BSFA 50th party tomorrow evening, though. And one issue of Vector went to the printers last week (meaning it could start hitting doormats as early as the end of next week), with another hot on its heels.