THE PEOPLE OF SAND AND SLAG by Paolo Bacigalupi (BOOK REVIEW)
“They’d call us Gods”
Paolo Bacigalupi’s short story collection ‘Pump Six and Other Stories,’ including ‘The People of The Sand and Slag,’ was a 2008 Locus Award Winner for Best Collection and was named a Best Book of the Year by Publishers Weekley. His Novel The Windup Girl, won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Compton Crook, and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards. As well as many international awards. His YA fiction series (Ship Breaker, Drowned Cities and Tool and War) has won many awards and his latest novel The Water Knife, is about a near-future thriller about climate change and drought in the USA.
Paolo Bacigalupi’s work never fails to send shock waves down your spine. His severe approach to writing speculative fiction to present haunting possibilities for humanity’s future engender feelings of guilt, grief and remorse. Often, his work is named cli-fi (Science Fiction concerned with the issues of Climate Change) and can clearly be analysed and understood through the lens of Ecocriticism at its best. From his short stories to his award-winning novels (such as The Windup Girl), Bacigalupi forces the reader to question their own position in the world and their behaviour towards it. With constant confrontations regarding humanity and what it is that being human truly involves, Baciglaupi’s 2008 short story, ‘The People of the Sand and Slag,’ offers the reader an insight into the dark possibilities of our future, should nothing change soon.
As Jacques Derrida states, ‘now is the time for a new thinking,’ with the confusion and rapid changing of humanity’s position in the world, particularly in regards to technological advances and evolving attitudes towards the natural world, many in the fields of science, philosophy, and animal studies are researching the possibilities of what humanity could technologically accomplish in the coming years. Concerns surrounding the Anthropocene and the future of our planet drip off the pages of scientific journals, political papers and even contemporary Science Fiction. Authors, such as Bacigalupi, explore our possible futures, by using contemporary fears surrounding humanity’s concerns about the environment, longevity and atrophying aspects of humanity or human relationships, to present a dystopian technologized future. One that forces us to acknowledge our behaviour now, and what we might wish to do about it.
“Who needs animals if you can eat stone?”
Chen and the rest of his team from SesCo’s mining operations are out looking for an intruder. They search the catchment lakes, tailing pits and mountains of waste material for the hostile presence that the security alarms have alerted them to. They expect a centaur, or a Biojob – that is, a creature genetically grown with Weeviltech technology, to be of use to humans and able to survive the world as it now is. Chen and his friends do not expect what they find. A creature they I have little experience with, other than in a zoo.
“That’s not a bio-job at all,” Jaak whispered. “That’s a dog.”
A large, ‘real’ dog, running around the facility all alone, with acid stained legs and a mass of tangled hair.
“it’s like finding a goddamn dinosaur”
The group are astounded, and have no idea what to do. They take the dog and seek advice on what they should do with the dog, leading them to make a difficult decision…. Should they care the dog? Or should they eat it?
Bacigalupi’s short story provides an appropriate backdrop for the discussion of concerns surrounding animal studies, the Anthropocene, technological body modifications, and longevity. The characters of ‘The People of the Sand and Slag,’ have used Weeviltech to modify themselves unrecognisable as humans; they do not require food to live, ‘we ate sand for dinner,’ they can lose a limb and re-grow it, they can live in poison and the requirement to pro-create is no longer necessary.
“Weeviltech. Precisely. We transcended the animal kingdom”
Whilst it might appear they have chosen Weeviltech purely for longevity, the fact of the matter is that without Weeviltech, humanity would have died out long ago. The future world that Bacigalupi describes is poisoned, broken, and beyond repair. The sky is orange with pollution, the ground rumbles with the sounds of robotics ripping out what is left of the Earth’s resources, and the beach is described as a wasteland of barbed wire with petroleum waves crashing onto the shore. The world no longer has room for nature, very few animals or plants seem to have survived, without Weeviltech the humans would not have either.
“Lisa was a good swimmer. She flashed through the Ocean’s Metallic sheen like an eel out of history and when she surfaced, her naked body glistened with hundreds of iridescent petroleum jewels.”
There is an atmosphere of hostility and severity that taints their lives, as elements such as death, disease and risk have been removed, and along with them emotions such as grief, fear, loss, and love have atrophied and been lost along the way, replaced only by violence and dominance. Those who have chosen to live with Weeviltech have lost sight of what it means to be human, they have forgotten what it is to be vulnerable, weak, and mortal.
“We used to be like that dog,” I said.
And whilst the characters adore that they are no longer ‘Pathetic,’ like the dog appears to be, there seems to be a desperate attempt to get back to the state of what was once considered ‘human,’ and to feel as they used to feel, before the use of ‘gene modifications,’ ‘c-cell inhibitors,’ and the rest of what ‘Weeviltech,’ offers.
“We intended to amputate her for the weekend […] an experiment in vulnerability”
In a sick attempt to feel ‘close’ to something ‘natural,’ or ‘real,’ the group take it in turn to amputate each other, in what is called ‘an experiment in vulnerability,’ a popular activity amongst the people of this world. In doing so, they are forced to feel ‘vulnerable’ and ‘close to death.’ This is the only option the group have for a ‘rush of adrenalin,’ as nothing else is in fact a risk anymore. Anyone who has read this scene of amputation, vulnerability and sex (!) feels incredibly uncomfortable as nothing could be further from what we might consider ‘human’
“I sliced off her limbs […] I rendered Lisa down to her core”
Bacigalupi’s characters believe that in their modifications and advancements, they are like gods.
“If someone came from the past, to meet us […] would they even call us human?”
“No, they’d call us gods.”
In this statement, I feel only sadness, and an abrupt slap of familiarity with Stewart Brand’s exhortation concerning our attitude to climate change and the world we are killing with avoidable Slow Violence: “we are gods and must get good at it.”
Bacigalupi’s short story offers a terrifying look at our future, with shocking behaviour, disturbing practices, and glimmers of fading and fruitless hope. I urge everyone to read this story, and the rest of Bacigalupi’s work, as he deserves nothing more than unending recognition for his powerful and severe look at the world, and how he manages to tattoo this view into his fiction
Lucy Nield PhD Candidate, University of Liverpool.
Twitter: @lucy_nield1 Instagram: @lucy_dogs_books