The People of Sand and Slag – Paolo Bacigalupi
THE PEOPLE OF SAND AND SLAG
This story is about 3 biologically engineered humans who, whilst guarding a mining operation, discover a normal household dog and decide to look after the animal.
This tale is set in a distant future in which there appears to be have been a massive environmental disaster which has practically destroyed the planet. Despite this disaster – the cause of which is never explicitly explained – mankind has managed to survive by bioengineering themselves to adapt to this harsh new environment.
Without these advancements; other animals have become a rarity hence the discovery of the dog being an interesting event to the humans.
The humans depicted in this story are not required to breathe oxygen; can instantly repair their bodies to the extent of regrowing severed limbs and can eat basically anything. The most shocking part of this bio engineering is that the humans regularly eat sand, slurry and mining by products. This obviously makes reference to the way our food is processed now compared with decades again when most foods were grown locally. The recent horse meat scandal has just underlined our lack of understanding about modern food production and whilst this tale takes this point to an extreme it is certainly a relatable one.
What is also interesting about the three humans in the story is that they are clearly biologically engineered to no longer feel pain but it also seems to have taken away their ability to feel any kind of emotion. The dog, rather than being seen as something
that can be loved and respected is instead viewing as a curiosity. When one character teaches the dog to shake hands the others view this with an almost scientific reaction rather than one of affection. This lack of affection is not just limited to the dog, we understand there is a sexual relationship between 2 of the main characters but we never got the feeling this was anything more than sexual. One of act of love making in the story takes place in front of another character and the dog, underlining this emotional disconnection from what should be a very private experience.
It is not surprising that the dog quickly becomes a burden to the characters and, following the dog getting injured on some barbed wire, they decide to kill and eat it.
Earlier in the story they are informed that eating proper meat is a real delicacy but having cooked and consumed the animal they decide it was just okay and had tasted slag that was better. It is easy to see how the tale could be interpreted as an allegory
of domestic pet ownership especially as they decide to keep the dog on a whim and part of the decision to eat it is based on the characters preferring to spend money on themselves rather than the dog. Animals in post apocalyptic fiction usually are used
as a metaphor for the way our emotions are changed by an end of world event, in this story the animal serves no purpose for the humans other than being a burden and is quickly destroyed.
This story begins with a very heavy military science fiction slant in that in describes HEV’s and exoskeletons but as the tale continues it becomes a piece on the disposable mindset of our society and a warning on the potential outcomes of our modern love affair with fast, scientific progression.
The People of Sand and Slag is available for free online HERE and is part of excellent ‘Wastelands’ anthology as edited by John Joseph Adams.
Read more of Mark Swain’s writings here!
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