Hugo Nominee: “The Gambler”

Here’s the story. Here’s the comment:

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, at Strange Horizons:

“The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi explores one character’s sense of responsibility to honest news-reporting in a world that dictates content by popularity (pings, clicks, links, social pokes, etc.). The narrator’s distinctive first-person voice and observations on culture (“Americans are very direct”) weave a fascinating tapestry, though I personally found some of his uninformed perspective unlikely, and bordering on irrational righteousness. Search for identity is always compelling, though, when handled adeptly, and that is certainly the case in this piece. “True Names,” “Molly’s Kids” and “The Gambler” all make comments of varying seriousness on generational succession. “The Gambler” does so most eloquently by having the protagonist explicitly recognize how he is following in his father’s ideological footsteps.

Paul Raven, at Futurismic:

With “The Gambler“, Paolo Bacigalupi steps out of the niche that has been built around him on two counts – first by writing something so near-future it could be set before the close of the current decade, and second by writing something with a glimmer of hope to it. A plausible enough vision of the future of web-based new media to provoke io9 to cite it as accurate (albeit slightly ironically, considering their recent broadening of remit), “The Gambler” is actually a classic story re-told – the journalist who, despite the disapproval of his superiors, wants to write the news stories that really matter as opposed to puff-pieces.

David Soyka, at Black Gate:

However, the story here that I’d pick for the “hit single” […] is “The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi. The narrator is a web journalist in a near future in which readership – and the news feed’s stock price – is measured instantly. Reporters who file stories that get the most clicks directly contribute to company profitability. What kind of stories get the clicked on most frequently? Well, if you’re guessing that it might be the tabloid celebrity stuff as opposed to detailed analyses of government reports, you’d be making a reasonable extrapolation based on the current state of media “news” coverage.

The “gamble” is that there might be an audience for something more substantive than the usual fluff. That the gamble might have a chance of winning is why it is a science fiction story.

Charles Tan at Bibliophile Stalker:

Another undeniable favorite is Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Gambler” due to its focus on its Vietnamese protagonist. The strength of the piece is Bagicalupi’s focus on character and this is evident as we get flashbacks of the narrator’s father who is a martyr of sorts. There’s a lot of details packed into the story that gives it a rich flavor and makes it believable. Where Bacigalupi triumphs is that while the story could easily have taken place in the modern era, what makes it science fiction is the exaggerated qualities of our culture. By the time we reach the end, the story’s fairly predictable, but it nonetheless hits your gut and even I’m forced to evaluate my reasons for writing.

My original comments:

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.

So generally positive, then, but with some reservations — the plausibility of the central character, and I’d like to know what others make of Abigail’s observation in the comments to my original post that the ending felt truncated to her. I’m also slightly surprised not to have found more comment about this story out there; have I missed any significant write-ups?

10 thoughts on “Hugo Nominee: “The Gambler”

  1. never more prominent than when Kulaap tells Ong,

    This isn’t actually Kulaap, it is Janice.

    Ong does seem rather naive and FOTB for someone who has lived through revolution, been exiled to Thailand and then awarded a scholarship to the US. I understand this is meant to emphasise the parallels to the idealism of him father but this lack of pragmatism is unconvincing. It also makes for a bit of a schism between the voice he uses when talking to Kulaap (which is pretty bald and simplistic) and the one he uses when thinking about his father (which is more nuanced).

    The ending does hold out the possibilty of hope. However, in its strong parallel to his father it seems likely that Ong will lose his gamble too. (And Angel couldn’t possibly end well!)

  2. This isn’t actually Kulaap, it is Janice.

    Oops. Can you tell I wrote that post quite fast?

    I need to pin down what I meant about the endings a bit more clearly, I think; will try to do so later this evening.

  3. Wow. Novelette is a strong category this year, and this was the only one I hadn’t read before. So I was a bit surprised that it so easily jumped to the top of my list.

    Of course, Bacigalupi is one of my all-time favorites–“People of Sand and Slag” remains one of the best and most memorable short works I’ve read in the last five years.

    “The Gambler:” I really like the international perspective, and the contrast between what people in oppressive countries have to worry about: the ‘real news’ that people whisper to each other, and the fluffy stuff that rich westerners obsess over. I.e., the inconsequential stuff that’s the only thing papers with censorship will publish ends up being the only thing we pay attention to even without censorship.

    I have to agree with the quibbles about Ong: he seems a bit more like a caricature of an Asian immigrant than any of the actual immigrants from Asia I knew back in California. Especially the ones from repressive regimes tended to be more vehement, outspoken, and cynical. Also, I’m not sure the character as written would’ve insisted on stopping the car and ending the date.

    But while there’s some simplified stuff, and there’s probably an either/or fallacy going on here, there’s still a whole lot to like. I still feel that Bacigalupi is writing about the stuff that most of sf *should* be playing with but isn’t. (Which, as most of the reviewers above noted, is a big part of the point of the story.)

  4. Another thing I noticed: of all the nominees in this category, this is the only forward-looking one.

    “Alastair Baffle” = nostalgia
    “Shoggoths” = Lovecraft
    “Pride & Prometheus” = Frankenstein
    “Ray Gun” = old pulps

    “Gambler” = today’s tech and how it influences communication and perception, thus politics and power, with an eye to the global situation.

    What does that list say about the state of SF today?

  5. I made the same observation in my comments on the novelettes on my blog. There are also no novelettes sitting in genre heartland – well, there’s the eponymous ray gun in Gardner’s, but the treatment is hardly core sf. Um, on reflection, it’s just in novelettes – short stories has the Swanwick, and novellas has the McDonald and Rosenbaum/Doctorow…

    But ‘The Gambler’. I wrote: At least this is 21st Century science fiction. It’s also very good, with a clever extrapolation of some aspects of current technology. But, more than that, it’s relevant. It’s about our world and our future. It’s not some rosy-tinted reminiscence about the dead past. Science fiction is neither predictive nor didactic, but it should certainly look forward. This novelette does exactly that.

  6. I am less troubled than the comments of others above by the narrator’s “fresh off the boat” behavior. It comes across to me as a plausible mixture of culture shock and the narrator’s own unbending idealism. Our narrator, Ong, as best I can tell is a very recent hire at Milestone Media. His butterfly article appears to be his one and only publication when we meet him.

    More problematic for me is the lack of science fiction content. The death of daily print journalism has been obvious for years, if not decades, although lately it has accelerated. The triumph of celebrity-based and sensationalistic tabloid-style journalism isn’t exactly news either. Real-time modeling of website click-through behavior is present-day technology. Although, purchasing data about on the competition may be an extrapolation. The author provides some simple labels to indicate that we are somewhere in the near future: hepatitis G, whisper sheets, and WhisperTech.

    There are plenty of substantive issues raised: the interplay of politics, the media, and the marketplace; a father and son relationship of shared idealism; a culture clash from a Laotian perspective; the evolution of journalism in the present day, or perhaps near future; and Ong’s willingness to gamble his job and immigration status on an idealistic stand. And it’s hard to dislike a story with several references to Thoreau.

    I see the ending as pessimistic, since Ong is likely to lose his job and possibly his visa, and the effects of global warming continue to worsen.

    Unlike Karen, I see Ong’s action to stop the car and end the date to be consistent with his uncompromising idealism about so many things — not just journalism, environmental science, and politics, but personal relationships, too.

    It’s the strongest of the nominated novelettes so far — I haven’t read “The Ray-Gun” yet. As usual, the novelette category is quite strong, with the exception of “Baffle.” Still, Karen’s comment citing the nostalgic nature of four-out-of-five of the nominees is interesting and a bit troubling.

    Steve Lovekin

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