People of Sand and Slag, The by Bacigalupi, Paolo, 2004

People of Sand and Slag, The by Bacigalupi, Paolo

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THE PEOPLE OF SAND AND SLAG, by Paolo Bacigalupi 2005, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: One of the best environmental stories to be published in recent memory is in my opinion this story by a relatively new author; The People of Sand and Slag, by Paulo Bacigalupi. Set probably in the far future, it is about how humans have adapted to survive in a completely wrecked environment. Oddly, it really does not qualify as a dystopic vision. In fact, it may even be a utopia, though if it is this one definitely qualifies as an "ambiguous utopia," at least from our perspective.

The People of Sand and Slag is about the lives of a group of three post human guards who live in Montana. The world is dominated by corporations who hire their own private armies to defend their infrastructure. These guards have been assigned to protect a major mining operation. They have been modified heavily with a technology called weeviltech, which allows them to obtain nutrition from absolutely anything. They regularly dine on shale, mine tailings, water laced with heavy metals and even on everyday dirt. They no longer need to breathe oxygen, and can re-grow parts that have been cut off, and in fact, they play make-up games where one submits to having all four of his or her appendages removed as an exercise in trust, just as we close our eyes and fall backwards, trusting that our friends will not let us hit the ground. They are very aggressive, and have extra computer memory and processors built into their brains. They can also add artificial parts to their bodies. One of them appears to be trying to make herself into a human guillotine.

After diner we sat around and sharpened Lisa's skin, implanting blades along her limbs so that she was like a razor from all directions. She'd considered monomol blades, but it was too easy to take a limb off accidentally, and we lost enough body parts as it was without adding to the mayhem. That kind of garbage was for people who didn't have to work: aesthetics from New York City and California.

Apparently some things never change. And kudos to Bacigalupi for using the word "mayhem" correctly!

The guard's lives get turned upside down when a common, every day, unmodified dog wanders onto the compound that they are guarding. At first they cannot figure out how the thing managed to survive. Then they wonder how it tastes. But before they can strip the dog of its skin and chow down, one of them decides that it would make a cool retro companion and convinces the others to spare it. It turned out that food for the dog was incredibly expensive, and it was constantly getting into trouble. There was dangerous trash all over the place, and all puddles of water were poison to it. They tried to keep the dog alive, but it eventually became too much of a chore and too expensive, so on a vacation to Hawaii they gathered some fuel and oil from a giant slick just off the shore, started a bonfire, then cooked and ate the dog.

At its core this story seems to be asking whether the vulnerable are worth saving. The dog here is an absolute dead end of its evolutionary chain, and there really is nothing that can be done with it, or for it without a great inconvenience. But to us, living here and now, isn't this how we define the more virtuous aspects of our personalities? Is this not where we are trying to go with our society? Don't we want to save things that cannot survive on their own, and don't their various plights collectively touch our hearts? In that respect I have thought in the past that this story is a dystopic vision of the future, with an environment that has been wrecked for no good. But to the characters, this really is no big deal. They spend the end of the story on vacation in Hawaii, and it is every bit as wrecked as Montana was. There were burning pools of fire right off the coast, no plants grew, and there was deadly trash floating in the water and washing up on the beaches. It just did not matter to these people, mainly because no amount of ecological "damage" would ever affect them, but also because this is obviously what they were used to. From their perspective it can easily be said that killing the dog was a way of putting it out of its misery. And a state of misery is definitely what the dog lived in. They even wondered the following, just after finding the dog tangled in a cluster of wire on the beach, panting, bleeding and dying"

"If someone came from the past, to meet us here and now, what do you think they'd say about us? Would they even call us human?"

Lisa looked at me seriously. "No. They'd call us gods."

This story is about a bunch of people who find a dog in the wilderness, take care of it, feed it, and feel love from it, but in the end eat it. Substitute the concept of "take it to the pound" for "eating it," and this may be an overblown allegory for the fate of many domestic pets in our society, especially since one of the characters accepts the dog on a whim. Most of those animals die too. This is certainly not the nicest of tales out there, but in any other setting this thing would have been much sadder. Imagine how different things would have been had the people who found the dog been survivors of a nuclear war. Or shipwrecked children on an island. Or some type of morlock who could get no help or assistance from members of the dominant society, and was wandering in the wilderness, starving. In all of those stories the dog would presumably have some sort of social utility. Here it has none, so its death affects the world not at all. At least not immediately. And since all other species are presumably gone too, what use could it possibly serve in the world? Other than to serve as an anchor for our feelings, which can get quite intense about canines, the animal is pretty much as useless as it is doomed to an early death anyway. As for the guards, they have everything that they need freely available in the environment, and have to rely on nobody for anything. They are not bothered in the least by environmental damage, and the way that Bacigalupi described the landscape, I am sure that it is every bit as sublimely beautiful as it is in our world. It is just different. If you can tell me how that is not a utopia, I will buy you a cigar.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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