Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi

Fast Forward 2My story recommendation for this week is "The Gambler," a novelette by Paolo Bacigalupi. Paolo is the first author to garner two of my weekly story recommendations, which is fitting, since in my view no one today is writing better short fiction. (I suspect the two novels he has been working on are great as well, but he hasn't shared them yet.)

You can find "The Gambler" in Fast Forward 2, edited by Lou Anders (cover art by John Picacio). Just out from Pyr Books, Fast Forward 2 contains fourteen tales by some of the leading names in science fiction today, including Ian McDonald, Cory Doctorow, Mike Resnick, and Nancy Kress. As I wrote in my review of Fast Forward 1, the resurgence of the unthemed original anthology series is very encouraging for the SF/F field, in light of the major magazines' declining circulations. In addition to the Fast Forward series, there is strong work in the Eclipse anthologies edited by Jonathan Strahan and in the ongoing The Solaris Book(s) of New Science Fiction edited by George Mann. But Fast Forward is the best of the lot, in no small part because it has Paolo Bacigalupi.

Paolo's work is often praised for taking an unblinking look at important social and political issues. This is true, but it understates what he achieves in his fiction. First and foremost, Paolo writes beautifully crafted stories. He gets you to care about his characters and what happens to them. That is why his stories' messages are effective.

"The Gambler" is set in a near-future newsroom, when reporting is dominated by the ever-present need to draw net traffic, depicted in a great graphic representation called the "maelstrom." Our main character Ong, a political refugee from Laos, wants to investigate serious issues, but there is little room for such stories alongside the latest celebrity sex scandal. This is meaningful social commentary cleverly presented, but what makes the story work is that Bacigalupi gets you into Ong's skin early on:
Sometimes, when I wake in the night to the swish and honk of Los Angeles traffic, the confusing polyglot of dozens of countries and cultures all pressed together, in the American melting pot, I stand at my window and look down a boulevard full of red lights, where it is not safe to walk alone at night, and yet everyone obeys the traffic signals. I look down on the brash and noisy Americans in their many hues, and remember my parents: my father who cared too much to let me live under the self-declared monarchy, and my mother who would not let me die as a consequence. I lean against the window and cry with relief and loss.

Every week I go to temple and pray for them, light incense and make a triple bow to Buddha, Damma, and Sangha, and pray that they may have a good rebirth, and then I step into the light and noise and vibrancy of America.
It is not Ong's parents who need a good rebirth. Soon Ong will receive a huge career break. Whether he can take advantage of it makes for a terrific story, because you care about his fate.

All of which is not meant to minimize the importance of the issues Bacigalupi addresses in his fiction. Indeed, one reading of "The Gambler" is that Ong is a stand-in for Paolo himself, who no doubt has also been told that "no one wants to read about how the world's going to shit." Paolo writes about the world going to shit, but believe me, you want to read it.

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