Why are three of this year's Hugo nominees about the decline of America?S

Blogger Paul Kincaid compares three of this year's five Hugo finalists, and discovers a theme: They're all about the decline of the United States of America. What causes the U.S. to fall from power in these books? Spoilers ahead.

When I set out to blog this year's Hugo shortlisted novels, I imagined something conventional like a separate post on each book. For the first two books I was able to stick to that modest ambition, but the next three I read set off such resonances and cross-currents that I felt I had to read each in relation to the other two. Hence this composite post on The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest and Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson.

They are all novels that explore, in one form or another, the decline of America. Each takes the topic in a very different way, but the overlaps interest me. Bacigalupi and Wilson both set their work in the future but employ old-fashioned technology; Wilson and Priest both use the American Civil War as their touchstone for decline; Priest and Bacigalupi both take the cause of decline as morally neutral but put the moral weight of their stories on the people coping with decline.

Why are three of this year's Hugo nominees about the decline of America?S

Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, the most overtly steampunk of the three novels under consideration here, presses nearly all the right buttons. In fact, the book so neatly conforms to the steampunk template that it feels rather mechanistic: dirigibles, check; stylish leather coats, check; fantastical machine, check.

Ah, yes, this fantastical machine, a superpowered digging machine that, interestingly, we never actually see working in the novel. When Isambard Kingdom Brunel – who should be the patron saint of steampunks everywhere, but probably isn't – was digging a tunnel he invented a means by which his men could work at the tunnel face at several different heights at once. It was faster and more efficient than previous means of tunneling, but it still relied on muscle power and was still very slow. Far too slow for the steampunks, of course; and they aren't really concerned with actual Victorian technology. No, the origin for this particular device lies, I suspect, in the burrowing machines that used to appear with stunning regularity at the behest of the villains in the super hero comics I remember reading in the 60s, and that cropped up more recently in The Incredibles (2004). This particular device, driven by its archetypal mad scientist inventor, leaves the cellar of his home on the outskirts of Seattle, takes a remarkably precise route through the centre of the city that manages to burrow through the underground vaults of all the banks, then returns to the inventor's home. You do wonder if he was using some primitive form of GPS, because that is a remarkable route to take underground with nothing to guide you; ah but we are not meant to ask awkward questions about steampunk technology, this is all just magic and handwaving.

That we should, indeed, treat the novel as fantasy rather than science fiction is demonstrated by the consequence of the mad underground ride. The point is not that the bank vaults have been emptied, that proves to be an irrelevance, but that the machine pierced a pocket of poison gas. Not your ordinary, everyday poison gas, of course, this gas doesn't just kill its victims, it turns them into ravening flesh-eating zombies. Not just fashionable steampunk; but fashionable steampunk with even more fashionable flesh-eating zombies: how could Boneshaker fail!?!

Now, if your city was suddenly beset by a poisonous gas that turned people into zombies, what would you do? Yes, indeed, most people do run (though this being the American West in the latter half of the 19th century, the lawman who lets the prisoners out of the local gaol so they can get away is branded a villain). But they also build a wall around the infected part of the city and rebuild Seattle around it, and, naturally, a lot of people choose to stay within the walled city. What's more, since the gas is heavier than air, they choose to live mostly underground.

Why are three of this year's Hugo nominees about the decline of America?S

As if the fate of Seattle wasn't enough to tell us that this isn't exactly our history, we learn more or less in passing that, back East, the Civil War is still raging. After twenty years of conflict, the two sides must have thrashed themselves to an exhausted standstill; but it's not from a military perspective that this interests me, but rather the symbolic weight. The Civil War was a significant turning point in the shaping of modern America. It provided the moral high place that America has occupied ever since; it stimulated industry across the North and the victory of the North put the country in a position to become the industrial and economic superpower of the twentieth century; and it also saw the start of the tide of European immigration into northern cities, primarily New York, that would continue for another half-century or more and make such a contribution to the country. If the war continues, then none of these issues can have been resolved, and in fact after so long a conflict cannot be resolved. In other words, this is a country of moral, economic and social exhaustion. The continuing Civil War, therefore, is our indication that this is an America in decline, a land of the lost. The America of optimism and manifest destiny never got going.

Why are three of this year's Hugo nominees about the decline of America?S

The Civil War plays a similar symbolic role in Robert Charles Wilson's Julian Comstock; the circumstances are very different but the overall effect is the same. Of course this time around it is not the actual Civil War we are talking about, because Julian Comstock takes place in the 22nd century. Despite the future setting, however, this is a steampunk world: the oil has run out and the United States has regressed to a social and technological level roughly equivalent to the mid-nineteenth century. The population is mostly rural, living in isolated settlements; travel is horse-powered with the occasional steam train for longer journeys; ships are wooden-hulled and wind-powered. The belligerent United States has recently won a war in Mexico (yes, I know, another Civil War echo), and is now engaged in a long and inconclusive war against the Dutch being fought out in Canada. But the blue uniforms of the American troops, the details of camp life, even what we glimpse of strategy and tactics, all recall accounts of the Civil War (I could go to my collection of Civil War histories and pull down any number of books that echo what Wilson includes in his novel). This echo is deliberate and is reinforced by the voice Wilson employs here (which I'll come back to in a moment), as in the Priest novel, it tells us that this is an America that has lost, or perhaps more appropriately abandoned, the moral, economic and social advances that came in the wake of the Civil War. We are, once again, in an America without optimism, without success.

In this way, the very setting of the novel represents the end point of a tragedy. From the mire of the Civil War the United States propelled itself to greatness, but has now fallen back to its starting point once more. And nothing in the novel gives us any hope that the growth might one day resume. None of these three novels leaves much room for hope. Against this tragic backdrop, Wilson fashions a story that is itself a tragedy. (One of the things that distinguish these three novels from each other is the character of the story they relate against surprisingly similar backdrops: Priest has a straightforward adventure plot; Wilson's novel is a tragedy; and Bacigalupi has written a bildungsroman.) Of course, we are meant to see the tragedy of Julian Comstock as being the tragedy of America (though in that respect, his homosexuality seems an unnecessary distraction).

Why are three of this year's Hugo nominees about the decline of America?

Julian and the narrator are boyhood friends, growing up together in a rural community miles from anywhere. Julian is a member of the local gentry, Adam is far lower on the social scale; as is the way in such stories, Julian's easy-going friendship with and loyalty to someone far below his class is meant to show that he is one of the good guys. Julian is, in fact, the nephew of the perpetual president, a man who behaves like a medieval monarch forever afraid that some close family member will usurp his throne (there are some ways in which Wilson's United States has regressed far beyond the nineteenth century). Julian's father, the popular victor in Mexico, has already been assassinated, which is why Julian has been secreted in this out of the way place. When the war in Canada starts going badly (the president depriving his generals of the resources they need for victory in case they use them against him), a draft is initiated which Julian fears is meant to put him in a position where he might be killed, so the two friends run away. After a cross-country steam train journey reminiscent of the travels of hobos in the Depression of the 1930s, they end up joining the army anyway, with Julian signing up under the pseudonym of Julian Commongold. Once in Canada, they see how ill-organised the army is, but in battle Julian proves to be extraordinarily brave and helps win the day.

Adam, meanwhile, has encountered a drunken journalist who encourages him to practice being an author by writing up his experience of the battle. Since his taste in literature has been entirely shaped by the highly coloured work of a popular novelist, Charles Curtis Easton (think Frank Reade or G.A. Henty or, to show you the way my mind works, Fellowes Kraft in John Crowley's Aegypt (1987-2007)), this account is very romantic and emphasizes Julian's heroism. Unknown to him, the journalist appropriates this account and uses it as his own report on the battle. Further conflicts happen, further examples of Julian's heroism, further colourful accounts appropriated as journalism. Then the two, along with Adam's new wife (a wonderfully feisty Canadian who I always hoped would have a much more active role to play in the subsequent action than she in fact did), get the chance to return to New York. Only as they land to a hero's welcome do they discover that Adam's accounts have been published and have turned Commongold into a national celebrity, and in the same moment the true identity of the hero is revealed. This means that Julian is too famous for the president to act against him, but then the war in Canada takes another bad turn it is natural to call on the new hero to lead a force. Naturally everything goes wrong, but Julian is coolly and inventively able to extract most of his force from the trap. This is the trigger for a coup that deposes the old president and puts Julian in his place.

The trajectory of the tragedy has now reached its apex and events must commence their inevitable slide. Behind all that has happened so far is another conflict, less bloody but far more crucial to what this novel is about: the struggle between the secular and the religious. For Cherie Priest there was one person who instigated the collapse, which therefore relieves everyone else of moral responsibility. For Paolo Bacigalupi, the collapse is a natural event with the fall out of which his characters must cope as best they can, they take no moral responsibility for cause of the collapse only for how they deal with its aftermath. But for Robert Charles Wilson there is collective responsibility, everyone, effectively, is guilty. The end of oil, which triggered the technological collapse, may be as natural an event as it is in Bacigalupi, but that is as nothing besides the moral collapse of the country. Power in this future America is split between the secular government of a (very bad) president, and the religious government of a church militant. The church is autocratic, puritanical, dictates every aspect of everyone's life, is more powerful than the secular government, and the people as a whole are complicit in this power. Since we see enough to know that the church played a major part in bringing about the current degraded state of the country, we know that the population of the United States as a whole shares moral responsibility for the collapse.

Julian's tragic fall begins when he takes on the church. This should not be an occasion for tragedy but rather for heroic achievement, except that he is the archetypal hero with a tragic flaw. Partly this is his (homosexual) relationship with a renegade preacher; but more significantly it is his obsession with the novel's piece of fantastical technology. Yes, this is a typical steampunk novel: there are no dirigibles, but there are steam trains; there are cool costumes (it's not just the military uniforms that echo the Civil War era); and there's one fantastical bit of technology. In this instance it is the cinema. Not the cinema as we might understand it, but a rather delightful steampunk version in which a silent film is projected and live actors read the script, and in some curious echo of Bollywood no film, no matter how serious, is complete without songs. Julian becomes obsessed with the idea of making a film about Charles Darwin, whose teachings are prohibited by the church. This should be the crucial symbolic victory of science over superstition, except that Julian's film is more and more caught up in the conventions of film making, the Beagle, for instance, is attacked by a sea monster and by pirates led by Darwin's rival in love. Not only that, but the more time Julian spends on his film the less he devotes to affairs of state. The inventive and heroic war leader proves to be an indecisive and self-obsessed political leader, and the premiere of the film is not the triumph of the secular but the start of another collapse.

Boneshaker ends where it begins, in Seattle; away from the poisoned city things are, presumably, better, but Priest's individualist characters can find some sort of equilibrium even amid the gas. Julian Comstock ends in Europe, which we barely glimpse but which seems to have escaped not only the religious chaos of America but also the worst effects of the technological failure. Both are, therefore, distinctly and specifically American catastrophes, the American exceptionalism of 1950s science fiction neatly reversed. The Windup Girl, however, portrays a global catastrophe. The novel begins and ends in Bangkok, and never strays from that city. We do not see America (though it featured in some of the short stories associated with this novel), but what references we do pick up suggest it has fared better than some places, worse than others, in this post-oil world.

Why are three of this year's Hugo nominees about the decline of America?S

The Windup Girl feels both like and unlike the other two novels. Like Julian Comstock it is set in a post-oil future, but the political and moral shape of this world is very different. Like Boneshaker it circles around debased technology with a distinctly steampunkish sensibility (there are airships); but the steampunks really love the fire-breathing glamour of their devices (remember the steam train enthusiasts I mentioned earlier), and there is no love for the tightly-wound springs that power this novel. The treddle-operated computers, the murky algae tanks, the springs wound by genetically-modified mammoths are tiring, filthy, inconvenient and dangerous. Practically the first thing we see in the novel is the devastation wrought when a device for winding springs snaps. This is not a world where anybody is getting on, most people are barely getting by.

And if both Boneshaker and Julian Comstock use the Civil War as their base point, The Windup Girl has more recent and more literary references. What we get is a cross between the depression-era fiction of writers like John Steinbeck and Graham Greene-type fictions of weary colonials exhausted and defeated by the alienness of the world around them. The difference is instructive. Even when war is not centre stage, both Priest and Wilson present things as a battle, their characters more concerned with fighting than with comprehending their world. There is war in Bacigalupi's novel, but it is off-stage, except for one brief flare-up at the climax that is concluded so quickly that it is clear Bacigalupi has no great interest in writing about it. The Windup Girl, rather, is a novel in which economics is the great driver, the characters pay attention to the world because they have to find a way to make a living from it.

Yet in overall affect, The Windup Girl seems to sit squarely with both Julian Comstock and Boneshaker. In each, we see our world falling apart around us, we see grim survival triumph over heroism, we see optimism for the future snuffed out. The nature of the catastrophe may vary, but there is little doubt that catastrophe is all around and there is little point in hoping for anything else.

In The Windup Girl this is personified in Hock Seng, the old Chinese clerk who is first seen peddling away at a computer in the office of Anderson Lake. Over the course of the novel we discover that he was once a rich and successful businessman in Malaysia, until nationalist rioting destroyed both his business and his family. Now he is a yellow card alien, tolerated but not exactly welcomed in Thailand, with the possibility that his right of residence might be revoked at any moment, or that nationalist rioting might flare up here. He lives alone in a slum, dependent (as all yellow cards are) on the goodwill of a crime lord; he works in a demeaning position for someone he despises, he defrauds the company when he can, he hordes the cash he manages to amass in unsafe hiding places, and he schemes to regain some of his former wealth and power. But he remains essentially powerless in a position where all security and certainty have been stripped from him. It is a situation in which all the characters in the book find themselves to some degree or other.

The title character, Emiko, is an artificial woman from Japan, the home of advanced technology. One of the common characteristics of science fiction that goes back as long as I can remember is the notion that whenever the world falls from technological grace, any pocket of advanced technology will be looked upon with fear and suspicion. I've never been entirely convinced by this supposition; it seems to me that, particularly when there is a memory of a recent technological golden age, such pockets of advanced technology might actually be looked upon with wonder and desire. Nevertheless, this is one of those givens of the genre, so we don't ask too many questions. Emiko arrived in Bangkok as the secretary and sexual companion of a rich Japanese businessman, but when he returned home he abandoned her. Like Hock Seng, her legal position in the country is tenuous at best, and the local people could turn against her at any moment. She earns a precarious living putting on a humiliating sex show in a local nightclub, where the club's owner pays enough in bribes to the local police to keep her safe. Still she dreams of escaping to a rumoured community of windup people, and when she meets Lake he seems to offer a potential escape.

Our third major character, Lake, is, like Hock Seng and Emiko, a foreigner whose status is questionable. At first he appears much more secure than the other two: a rich American who has recently taken over a struggling factory making springs, he has government contacts, he spends his days drinking with other ex-pats and his evenings in seedy clubs. But he is a spy for a genetics company wanting to steal the secrets of Thailand's seed bank, an enterprise that inevitably puts him in danger. The efforts of Hock Seng to steal from him and his growing obsession with Emiko both destabilize his position, but it is his own Machiavellian ambitions that eventually prove his undoing.

Against these there are two main Thai characters, Jaidee, an upright policeman whose espousal of traditional virtues exacerbates tensions between branches of the Thai government, and Kanya, his lieutenant and eventual successor, a more morally dubious character who still comes to uphold his virtues. It is important to recognize that none of these are bad characters, though all have questionable traits; but in the circumstance each comes to use the others as way to their own economic or even physical survival. What we see in The Windup Girl is how technological collapse (the end of oil) is inextricable from political, social and economic collapse, and that this in turn directly affects the moral and physical well-being of every individual caught up in it. As the world falls apart, old moralities and beliefs have to be subject to constant revision.

All three of the novels, therefore, concern a world in which America cannot be the dominant culture. Physical decay stands in for moral and cultural decay, the loss of American economic might implies the loss of military might (only Julian Comstock directly addresses the notion of America as a military power, but all three imply that America can have no military standing beyond its own borders). The Windup Girl suggests that, in biological terms, the rest of the world might have more reason for hope than the United States; Julian Comstock specifically shows the rest of the world as politically and economically more stable and secure than the United States; Boneshaker displays no awareness of the rest of the world, though this in turn indicates a country turned inward upon its own misery.

Morally, Boneshaker offers only two villains, one of whom has been written out of the story before the novel even opens, the other is almost pantomimic in his villainy. All other characters, though they represent shades of moral worth, are essentially old-fashioned Western individualists. This is an America wracked by an unending Civil War and, within the specific locale of the novel, ripped apart by an irruption of the supernatural, but in essence it remains true to American conceptions of its own worth. It is only the two novels set in the future that directly question this worth. In Julian Comstock all of America is complicit in its own downfall because of its allegiance to religious authority. In The Windup Girl, moral standards have changed in the changing world circumstances, but those circumstances have in turn prompted a re-evaluation of American self-worth; manifest destiny is clearly a thing of the past.

In effect, what these books propose is that the past is a model for the future. It may be the past of the Civil War or the past of the great depression, but those traumas are the shape that coming Americas must take on. The tragedy that provides the trajectory of Wilson's novel is, on a macro level, what all these novels foresee for America: a downward slope must come, and come soon. It is not a new perception for American science fiction, but it is interesting that three out of five of the novels shortlisted for the genre's leading popular vote award should all share this vision.

This post by Paul Kincaid originally appeared in a longer form (split into four parts) over at Big Other. Read the four parts in their entirety here, here, here and here.