Sunday, March 3, 2013

The New New Thing: "The People of Sand and Slag" (2004)

I just listened to a podcast interview with Paolo Bacigalupi, which might be a little old (it's before The Windup Girl won any awards), but is still interesting, especially in light of the last few stories I've read. In it, PB makes the argument that YA fiction is better for making readers change or at least assess their lives, particularly their environmental impact. So, an adult may read a story, be moved by it, but what are they going to do--give up their car? Whereas if you get them young, before they're set in their ways, they might make environmentally responsible decisions.

In light of that, "People of Sand and Slag" seems a powerful but failed activist statement: it takes place in a future where humans have destroyed the environment totally but also enhanced themselves to deal with the degradation. So the three characters here are enforcers for a mining company, who, as luck would have it, can eat sand and dirt, and regenerate from just about any trauma. In fact, on their days off, they engage in trauma as play of various sorts: setting knives into one's body, amputating and caring for a loved one (just for a day--the limbs regrow quickly).

Perhaps next time I read a PB story I will put it down after the first, oh, 10%, and write what I think will happen. I feel like I might be able to because his stories have a certain plot arc:

  • inhuman(e) condition--
    • the beggar in "Dharma," 
    • the fluted girls in "Fluted Girl," 
    • the monstrous humanoids of "Sand and Slag"
  • --is disrupted by possibility of betterment--
    • the beggar gets the lama cube, 
    • the fluted girl contemplates suicide-as-freedom,
    • the monstrous humanoids who live without a safe environment adopt a dog"
  • --only for the world to prove much worse--
    • the lama cube that makes him a target can't actually help him,
    • the fluted girl accidentally eats the boy who helped her,
    • the monstrous humanoids decide to eat the dog.
Or put another way, as soon as these monstrous humans discuss whether to adopt or eat the dog, it's pretty clear that the dog will end up as dinner, even if it's after an adoptive period.

What's curious about "Sand and Slag" is that it's told from the POV of someone not at the bottom of the food/exploitation chain, but someone firmly in the middle: these guards may be inhuman because of their environment but they retain certain powers, both because of their technology and their jobs.

(The question then being: if you can eat rock, why do you need a job at all, especially a job killing things? The whole military/guard side of the equation--the "Slag," as in "battle"/"war" (in Swedish/Dutch/Afrikaans)--isn't really examined in this story, but only hinted at. What is this installation mining and who wants to attack it?)

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