The Gambler

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.

8 thoughts on “The Gambler

  1. FYI: Paolo’s story looks like it falls into the novelette category, while my piece in Eclipse 2 is a short story.

  2. Summon Author rules, especially in this case! :)
    I can’t wait to read both stories – still waiting on my copy of Fast Forward 2, & I won’t read any of the stories online as I want to read ’em on paper.
    And can’t wait for Eclipse 2!

  3. It is a good story, but I find it a little low-key. This tends to get lost in the shuffle of his more prominent qualities (what you call ‘miserablism’), but most of Bacigalupi’s stories are plot-driven. Stuff happens, and often in a way that’s surprising and unexpected. I think one of the reasons I took so long to warm to “The People of Sand and Slag” is that it ends pretty much where you think it will once the premise is established, but that’s relatively uncommon in Bacigalupi’s bibliography. “The Gambler” does a good job of capturing a moment, and I like the slightly sinister comparison it draws between the totalitarian Laotian regime, in which negative news is suppressed, and the allegedly free US, in which negative news is ignored and its writers’ jobs eliminated by the free market, but it doesn’t have a plot, and I find its ending less hopeful than you do. There’s no indication in the story that Ong’s gamble on human nature is going to be successful, and I feel almost as though the ending is truncated, cutting away before Ong’s downfall.

    I did like it, and I’d like to see it on the Hugo ballot, but it’s not an automatic win for me yet.

  4. Interesting. I mean, I agree that there’s no indication his gamble will be successful, but — to make a perhaps slightly odd comparison — I like it for the same reason I like the end of Angel. It’s not that I personally find it hopeful per se (you can argue that in both cases the odds are that what happens next is failure), it’s that I like the fact that we literally cannot know what happens next — it’s a classic slingshot. It could end well. What moves me, actually, is the determination to keep fighting, and in the case of “The Gambler” specifically what moves me is Ong’s ability to still feel hope.

    I think saying it has no plot at all is a bit strong. Clearly it does — Ong’s job is threatened; Ong’s job is saved. Stuff happens. But you’re right that it’s for Bacigalupi a plot-light story, and low-key in other ways as well; it’s just that I think that fits as part of the whole. I think it might have been harder to sell such a quiet ending in a noisier story.

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