Starships, sofas, Hugo awards, podcasts, gambles and wind-ups
February 19, 2010 3:49 PM   Subscribe

Due to a rewording of the rules Science Fiction podcast StarShipSofa (previously, previously, previously) could be eligible for a Hugo award. Meanwhile the current episode features The Gambler (text version here), a story by Paolo Bacigalupi - best known as the author of The Windup Girl, one of TIME Magazine's ten books of the year ("Not just science fiction, mind, but fiction, generally") and almost certainly a favorite for the Hugo's best novel category.
posted by Artw (32 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Rather fittingly The Gambler is in part about clicks and social media. It's pretty cutting edge as SF goes, which is pretty risky - it was first published in 2008 and still feels pretty fresh and relevant to me, but as things change in the next few years I could see it starting to seem old hat pretty quickly. Still, great story.
posted by Artw at 3:52 PM on February 19, 2010

I just read about The Windup Girl and it sounds fascinating. Have you read it, Artw?
posted by brundlefly at 4:36 PM on February 19, 2010

Bacigalupi Gets Two Nebula Nominations

There's a lot of names there familiar to me through StarShipSofa actually (Jason Sanford, Ted Kosmatka). They podcast Vinegar Peace, or the Wrong-Way Used-Adult Orphanage a while back as well.
posted by Artw at 4:39 PM on February 19, 2010

Have you read it, Artw

I have to admit that it's in a stack on the bedside table. The Gambler means it gets a promotion to top of the pile though.

Pump Six and Other Stories has some awesome stories in it, inclusing The Calorie Man, which sounds like it's the basis for Windup. I almost regret that he's moving on to writing novels and not staying a short story who turns out perfect stories every so often, like Ted Chiang, though you pretty much have to take a vow of poverty to do that.
posted by Artw at 4:48 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I just finished reading The Windup Girl last night and would definitely recommend it. I would describe it as a biotech The Diamond Age (instead of nanotechology, but without Stephenson's tendency for crap endings and BS namedroppy-posturing). It feels as though The Windup Girl may become a canonical Science Fiction book.
posted by amuseDetachment at 4:48 PM on February 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Am I the only person who doesn't like listening to fiction? I just get frustrated with how slowly it goes compared to how fast I could be reading it. I get bored with most podcasts for the same reason, but I'll give SSS a go since everyone seems to like it.

Unfortunately I am a grumpy old fart who likes paper fanzines and plans to nominate as many as possible since I think the category has a couple of years before it's filled with blogs and podcasts and the paper zines are squeezed out, plus I have an aversion to all Hugo self-promotion, so SSS won't be getting my nomination thi year.

Haven't read The Windup Girl, but I've heard good things about it (and a few not so good things) and I do like Bacigalupi's short fiction. It's the io9 book club pick and they may still be offering a free epub from that link. The Calorie Man is in the same setting, and you can read it for free.
posted by penguinliz at 5:16 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

James, whom penguinliz links to above, knows his SF like nobody's business. But I think he (like me, actually) may be a little jaded from reading so much of it and demands a level of believable worldbuilding which excludes a lot of fine books. To be fair, the level of worldbuilding he looks for is "not completely unbelievable and ridiculous". Which is easily a defensible viewpoint. But I still think it excludes some fine novels.

Of course it excludes far more extremely terrible ones too. So I do find it hard to be too critical of that particular filter.
posted by Justinian at 5:25 PM on February 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

Having read the book as well, I'm not sure the criticism that James Nicoll makes is quite justified. I wouldn't describe this book as "hard sci-fi". The author doesn't spend much time explaining how the world became the way it is, it doesn't establish specific causes for the current environment, nor does it go into detail as to how the technology works — it just dumps you into the world. Functionally, it's much more a piece to describe how people live in a world with climate change and resource shortages. It's very much centralized around an ensemble of individuals, this is not one of those books that has The Special Scientist That Solves Everyone's Problems By Explaining/Narrating A Technical Solution In Detail. I'm fairly sick of neckbeardy sci-fi, though (and may have an axe to grind with that kind of fiction now), so take form that what you will.
posted by amuseDetachment at 5:40 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

James never says the novel is hard SF. Other types of SF (which constitute the vast majority) still have to make sense. James summarizes Bacigalupi's approach to worldbuilding as:
as long as the setting feels right to him, he's not going to double-check to see if it makes sense.
Which I think is fair. And is basically designed to annoy the hell out of James Nicoll. He's not asking for hard SF, he's asking for something that at least passes the laugh test.

I agree with him. It's just that our laugh tests vary considerably.
posted by Justinian at 6:03 PM on February 19, 2010

DRM-free Ebook versions of Pump Six and Windup Girl are available from Baen's WebScriptions for a measly six bucks each. I just picked up both of them for my Kindle.
posted by mrbill at 8:59 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, podcasts need more love. SSS in particular is a new iteration of he old skool trade mags.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:17 PM on February 19, 2010

Uh. In a novel twist, Paolo Bacigalupi replies to James and admits that he, too, hates his own book. Or something.
To be honest, I have almost the same problems with the book that you do, so please don't think you're alone in hating it. I think you've nailed the key problems with the story and its world quite nicely.
I'm not sure I've ever actually seen an author go "yeah, that part was shit" about his own work before. Weird.
posted by Justinian at 11:23 PM on February 19, 2010

His response to "Then why the hell did you write it?" is pretty good:

Because that was where the story led. Also because I'm compulsive about trying to finish stories, even when I'm in doubt about them.

To some extent, I have a lot of control over what I'm doing as a writer, and to some extent the story takes over and goes where it goes, and then I spend a bunch of time trying to smooth over the stupid parts, trying to balance between what seems most interesting in the story and what is most realistic, but obviously people's mileage will vary. And on any given day, my own mileage varies as well. I fix it as best I can, and then let it go. For some people the attempt works, for some it's tripe. I go back and forth.

In any case, I think James' critique is as relevant as any of the positive reviews the story has gotten. He's read it, focused on it, and nailed some key issues. What more can a writer really ask of a reader?


posted by Artw at 11:53 PM on February 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

Having read the book as well, I'm not sure the criticism that James Nicoll makes is quite justified.

Having just read the book (6 bucks I think is a nice price from drm-free text by the way), I wouldn't have bothered responded to criticism from james Nicoll who seems mostly annoyed that Paolo isn't as sceptical about global warming as he is...

the problem with hard sci-fi is that if it were really 'hard' it wouldn't be fiction. in this day and age, on most topics, advancing actual knowledge is a pretty hard bar to reach, aside from trying to tell a diverting story. i couldn't care less whether a giga-joule is a plausible amount of stored energy for a coiled metal spring.

my problem with "the windup girl" is that it is a novel about environmental and social/political catastrophe created by science and technology, but it really has very little to say other than catastrophe sucks. it doesn't seem to develop any strong opinion on the relationship between genetic engineering and global commerce and the politics thereof other than 'bad things could happen.' i think there is a lot one could say on these topics and i'm sure the author has opinions... but they don't seem to come out in the novel. also, the rape girl thing was a bad cliche and constructed in such a way so that the impact was muted.

but otherwise a good read.
posted by at 4:48 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

also, the Gambler reads as a nice retelling of the classic story by Melville of Bartleby, the Scrivener
Now and then, in the haste of business, it had been my habit to assist in comparing some brief document myself, calling Turkey or Nippers for this purpose. One object I had in placing Bartleby so handy to me behind the screen, was to avail myself of his services on such trivial occasions. It was on the third day, I think, of his being with me, and before any necessity had arisen for having his own writing examined, that, being much hurried to complete a small affair I had in hand, I abruptly called to Bartleby. In my haste and natural expectancy of instant compliance, I sat with my head bent over the original on my desk, and my right hand sideways, and somewhat nervously extended with the copy, so that immediately upon emerging from his retreat, Bartleby might snatch it and proceed to business without the least delay.

In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”
posted by at 5:00 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Windup Girl is a great book. Glad to see it on the blue. It's very nice to see a book from probably my favorite small press get this much recognition. I like his short stories very much and it seems like Paolo is not a big asshole like Chiang is reported to be. Hopefully it all translates into more for me to read of his in the future.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 5:23 AM on February 20, 2010

Ooooh? What's this about Chiang? TBH given how much I like his stuff it's remarkable how little I know about him. He could be this vending machine in Redmond that spits out a perfectly formed story every six months for all I know.
posted by Artw at 7:09 AM on February 20, 2010


"I like his short stories very much and it seems like Paolo is not a big asshole like Chiang is reported to be."

[ Puts on his "I Actually Know These People" hat ]

Paolo is a sweetheart and a very nice human being and (as this year's Nebula nods strongly imply) a hell of a writer. Ted Chiang is also hell of a writer and very much not an asshole, and I'm not really at all sure how such a "report" has come to be, unless someone has confused his exacting nature with being a jerk.

[ Takes off Hat ]
posted by jscalzi at 7:41 AM on February 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

Aha! So he has an actual physical presence?
posted by Artw at 7:45 AM on February 20, 2010

One of the early episodes of the Tor podcast features an interview with Paolo Bacigalupi which I seem to remember was quite interesting, despite the rest of the podcast being a bit of a let down.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:31 AM on February 20, 2010

He could be this vending machine in Redmond that spits out a perfectly formed story every six months for all I know.

No that's Greg Egan, who is actually an AI running on a super computer humming away in a secret bunker beneath the University of Western Australia.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:41 AM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ted Chiang is also hell of a writer and very much not an asshole, and I'm not really at all sure how such a "report" has come to be, unless someone has confused his exacting nature with being a jerk.

Well, one person's perfectionism is another person's "being a jerk".

My guess is that the reports of him being a jerk came about with regard to what happened with the various editions of Stories of Your Life and Others, in which Chiang was reportedly so, um, "exacting" as you put it with regard to the cover art that when it came to putting out the trade paperback those involved simply said to hell with it and didn't put any cover art on it at all, which as you know is a kiss of death in terms of sales.

I'm sure he's a great person. But it sure doesn't sound like you'd want to work with him as a cover artist or whatever!
posted by Justinian at 10:44 AM on February 20, 2010


"But it sure doesn't sound like you'd want to work with him as a cover artist or whatever!"

As it happens, I know others who have worked with him regarding cover art and had no problem with him whatsoever. Moreover, in that particular instance there's no indication that he acted like a jerk to anyone; it's possible to have strong creative differences with others and still conduct one's self politely, if forcefully.

It's not necessarily useful to conflate a person's personality from a single instance of disagreement, particularly when that instance is regarding business, not his personal interactions with others.
posted by jscalzi at 11:41 AM on February 20, 2010

What we would use the internet for if not to make wild generalizations or inferences from too little data? Well, that and porn.
posted by Justinian at 12:22 PM on February 20, 2010

Aha! So he has an actual physical presence?

Of course! The last time there was a Chiang visitation there were 3 miracle cures, two sudden instances of cancers, and 8.5 million in property damage.
posted by ShawnStruck at 2:18 PM on February 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

penguinliz - am I the only one who had trouble with the free epub file of Windup Girl (I transferred it to Stanza on my iPhone and it would only show the first page of every chapter, which amounted to less than 100 words each time).
posted by cerulgalactus at 4:02 PM on February 20, 2010

The podcats is well worth a listen for Paolo's bit. However I do find his views on what might help SF magazines a bit bizarre. Still, if someone asked me what would help them I'd probably say that nothing would and that sliding off into oblivion is inevitable for them...
posted by Artw at 8:39 AM on February 21, 2010

I read The Gambler on my way home, finished most of it while bouncing along on a bus, and had to finish it before I did anything else. Thanks for the links to his other material, penguinliz.

Little update on Windup Girl on io9 - you can ask him questions, and he'll join in tomorrow (Feb. 26) at 12 PST.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:35 PM on February 25, 2010

Oh, and I;m partway through Windup Girl now. It really is quite excellent. James Nicoll was being a bit of a tool, I'm afraid.
posted by Artw at 9:10 PM on March 1, 2010

Jason Sanford on the Nebulas
posted by Artw at 10:30 AM on March 5, 2010

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