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Give Gary Shteyngart a Hugo

September 22, 2010

The Hugo Award.

It’s a shame, but Gary Shteyngart will never win the Hugo Award.

For those who don’t know, the Hugo Award, named for Amazing Stories founder Hugo Gernsback, is considered science fiction’s great literary award, the equivalent of the Pulitzer to the SF community.  It’s a rather democratic one as literary awards go; all members of the World Science Fiction Society – that is to say, anyone who either attends that year’s WorldCon or else pays that year’s dues – can vote, a process which has produced some interesting results.  Slaughterhouse-Five was a finalist for the same award once given to Starship Troopers.  It is the only award I can imagine being given to both J.K. Rowling (in 2001, for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) and Michael Chabon (in 2008, for The Yiddish Policeman’s Union).  This year’s winners, a tie between the eminently worthy China Mieville for his Borgesian murder mystery The City & The City and impressive debut author Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, are both fine examples of the genre’s best.   I would call upon the SF community to stretch a little farther next year and award the honor to Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.

I also recognize there’s almost no chance of this happening.

In an age where it’s hard to steal even a moment for yourself, I read this book in one long sitting, moved to the brink of tears while laughing my ass off at Shteyngart’s dazzling wit.  In this grandly imagined near-future dystopia, the United States is a nation on the brink of failure, culturally dissolute, a shadow of itself as a world power, worn down by the effects of too many years of pervasive, grinding poverty for the many and irresponsible wealth for the few.  The Bipartisan Party, the fascistic monolith in charge of the government, has launched a war against Venezuela that it is now poised to lose.  Dissidents are quietly shipped upstate and interned.  The dollar must now be pegged to the yuan to be worth anything.  All the while, consumers are urged to buy more and take on even greater debt loads.  The book reads like a cross between Transmetropolitan, 1984, and Kurt Vonnegut; at every turn a new, wretched aspect of the culture reveals itself – entirely transparent jeans and undergarments for women, pornography as mass entertainment, “credit poles” which flash your credit rating and other indices of your worth as a person to all passersby.  The language itself is thoroughly debased; friends use crude sexual slang as terms of endearment, women rush to objectify themselves at stores with names like JuicyPussy.  Shteyngart’s vision feels uncomfortably accurate; it is not at all difficult to imagine how we would get there from where we are today.

In the middle of this, hapless immortality salesman Lenny Abramov, returns to New York from Europe, where he has just fallen in love with much younger Eunice Park.  Told through Lenny’s diary entries and records of Eunice’s electronic communication with friends and family members, at its core is, in fact, a love story, and a remarkably open-hearted one considering that it is surrounded by the razor-wire coils of Shteyngart’s satire.  The honest purity of Lenny’s feelings for Eunice stands in sharp contrast to the shallow and ultimately doomed world around them.  From the very start, Lenny is moved to write:

Today I’ve made a major decision: I am never going to die.

Others will die around me.  They will be nullified.  Nothing of their personality will remain.  The light switch will be turned off.  Their lives, their entirety, will be marked by glossy marble headstones bearing false summations (“her star shone brightly,” “never to be forgotten,” “he liked jazz”), and then these too will be lost in a coastal flood or get hacked to pieces by some genetically modified future-turkey.

Don’t let them tell you life’s a journey.  A journey is when you end up somewhere.  When I take the number 6 train to see my social worker, that’s a journey.  When I beg the pilot of this rickety UnitedContinentalDeltamerican plane currently trembling its way across the Atlantic to turn around and head straight back to Rome and into Eunice Park’s fickle arms, that’s a journey.

Lenny, a good soul in a decayed world, pursues Eunice with a wrenching fervor.  Eunice, meanwhile, is pulled in many directions at once, by her traditionalist Korean family, by her friends and the society in which they exist, by her own inability to decide what kind of life she wants for herself.  Lenny lives in a world where his emotions, real and raw as they are, just don’t mesh with the world as it is anymore.  When Lenny’s old friend Noah, a media figure, broadcasts a live interview with Lenny in a high-net-worth bar, Lenny breaks down:

“We’re such an unlikely couple, so unlikely,” I was crying, “because she’s beautiful, and I’m the fortieth-ugliest man in this bar.  But so what!  So what!  What if someday she lets me kiss every one of her freckles again?  She has like a million.  But every one of them means something to me.  Isn’t this how people used to fall in love?  I know we’re living in Rubenstein’s America, like you keep saying.  But doesn’t that just make us even more responsible for each other’s fates?  I mean, what if Eunice and I just said ‘no’ to all this. … What if we just went home and read books to each other?”

“Oh, God,” Noah groaned.  “You just halved my viewer load.  You’re killing me here, Abramov…”

No one in this world has time for love anymore, not when there are credit ratings to worry about.  When it all comes crashing down, it’s both exhilarating and horrifying; a terrible fate perhaps well-deserved for such a termite-riddled culture.  The story feels like an epic, larger than life, even though supporting it all is the most basic and essential of human needs, the need to love and be loved in return.

Comparisons will be made to 1984 or to Brave New World, Shteyngart’s literary lineage will be traced back to the traditions of his Russian birthplace.  But it is just as important to grant Super Sad True Love Story its place in another literary tradition, among the truly daring, visionary works of science fiction at its best, among the likes of J.G. Ballard, John Brunner, Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, or, even though he himself would raise objections to the label, Kurt Vonnegut.  And so I urge the members of the World Science Fiction Society to nominate Super Sad True Love Story for the 2011 Hugo Award for Best Novel.  It shares the same DNA as 1969 winner Stand On Zanzibar, which overloaded the reader with information from an array of sources – news items, radio clips, classified ads, songs – to present a compelling and multi-faceted vision of the future.  It echoes 1996 winner The Diamond Age in its consideration of the effects of too much moral relativism.  Its speculation on both the power of media and the meaning of immortality at a high price for the few and eternal death for the many recalls 1970 nominee Bug Jack Barron.  (I’m not accusing him of a rip-off, but I’d be surprised if Shteyngart never read Bug Jack Barron.)  It is as worthy as any of those books as a candidate for the award.

What, then, about the practicality of such an act?  Would the literary establishment recoil in horror at one of its darlings receiving an award from a trash genre?  It’s likely.  Though I’m sure the author would rather crawl through his own vision of the Border Country than admit it, Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer for one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written, The Road. Doris Lessing, a Nobel laureate, once wrote a five-novel cycle set on a distant planet in the far future, Canopus in Argos.  J. G. Ballard, once lashed to the masthead of Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds, was liberated from the sci-fi ghetto and resided in the mainstream until his recent death.  To this day, association with the genre – except for Michael Chabon who gleefully ran into its embrace – amounts to an admission of unseriousness.  But it has always been that the best science fiction was really about the present.  It has always been that writing about the future allowed writers to make observations that a present setting would not.   Clothing a literary masterpiece in science fiction’s garments has always been acceptable – as long as no one admits what you’re doing.  I say that’s ridiculous.  Give the man his rocket ship, whether he wants it or not.

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3 Comments
  1. Aaron Doughty permalink
    September 22, 2010 9:11 pm

    This is a work i’m not familiar with, however, it is one I plan to master soon enough. Dispersal of Hugo’s has been a hit or miss affair over the years (admittedly mostly hit), and I reserve comment on this particular work. That said, this article has compelled me to give this a look. Nicely stated!

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