BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 10 short stories from the mind of Paolo Bacigalupi.
PROS: An excellent collection of short science fiction.
CONS: The end of the book came too quickly, and this collection is a short one. Certainly not for readers who consider themselves faint of heart.
BOTTOM LINE: I hope he’s wrong about where we’re headed. It isn’t pretty.
With Bacigalupi’s game changing novel The Windup Girl collecting awards, his excellent collection of short fiction has become a rare book. With a wide release as a trade paperback, Pump Six and Other Stories is an essential science fiction collection that highlights the other stories that the author’s released, and provide a dark view of what the future might hold.
The overall theme of this collection and of Bacigalupi’s work in general is one of environmental collapse, and the lives of the people who are forced to live with the choices of generations past. Fans of ‘The Windup Girl’ will recognize two stories that share the same world closely: “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man”, while the remaining stories could easily fit into some loose chronology.
“Pocket Full of Dharma” – This story must have come from a fun prompt: What happens if you find that you can put the Dali Lama into your pocket. In this case, the man is put onto a memory storage device and ends up in the slums, where he falls into the hands of a street urchin. There are close parallels with the present day here: tensions with China, and the growing divide between the slums and high society, not to mention the clash between religion and advanced technology. This story was easily one of my favorites, for the environment and characters that Bacigalupi sets up, but also for the conceptualization of a world that could be right around the corner.
“The Fluted Girl” – One of two stories that disturbed me greatly while reading it, where biotechnology and advanced modifications allows two twin sisters to be changed into living instruments, in the backdrop of a futuristic world that is ruled by small fiefdoms. The resulting story is a scary one, with the original premise, but also holding to a core story: what will people in power, unchallenged power, do with the tools available to them? The result is horribly erotic and immoral, but thought provoking at the same time.
“The People of Sand and Slag” – A story also featured in John Joseph Adam’s fantastic anthology Wastelands, this story takes humanity to the far future with a devastated environment and ecosystem. People, modified to withstand their environment, exist in a hellish land. One particular group, a security detail, come across a rare, unmodified organism, a dog, and sees a brief glimpse in the fragility of life.
“The Pasho” – Of all of the stories here, this one felt the most out of place, and examines not the role of destruction, but of competing societies in a post-apocalyptic world that leans heavily towards an examination of the troubles in the Middle East: indeed, this story could be looked at as a far future of the region, and if it is, the outlook is bleak.
“The Calorie Man” – The first of two stories that fit within the world of The Windup Girl, “The Calorie Man” takes the reader across the world to the United States. In this post-contraction world, there’s an excellent view of how the major companies responsible for the state of the world operate, and the efforts to attempt and undermine the monopolies that they have created with their designed crops. Fans of Bacigalupi’s novel would do well to read this story.
“The Tamarisk Hunter” – Another story that could be set within a couple of years from now, “The Tamarisk Hunter” looks to the American Southwest and water shortages for inspiration. Plants along the major waterways create major problems for the cities on the west coast, and so-called Tamarisk hunters cull the plants for the bounties levied on them. Bacigalupi looks to the corruptible nature of people as a major element in the story here.
“Pop Squad” – More so than “The Fluted Girl”, “Pop Squad” is a story that disturbed me far more than any other science fiction or horror story that I’ve ever read in my life. In this dystopian future, humanity can live forever with the help of a treatment that allows for extended life: but at a major cost. People go off the treatment to give birth, and could never return, and in an effort to keep the population in check, investigators execute the offending children and parents that they locate.
“Yellow Card Man” – The second story within the universe of The Windup Girl takes the reader back to Bacigalupi’s Thailand, where several familiar characters resurface, and a new look at the slums and extreme poverty are seen from another perspective, this time from a Chinese immigrant to the country. (Readers will remember that the country doesn’t look favorably towards newcomers to the country). The story adds some additional perspective to the novel, but reads well on its own.
“Softer” – The only real deviation from the science fictional worlds, Softer is a story that works as a simple fictional story of a man who murders his wife and his own revelations on life as he covers up the crime and vanishes. The story feels out of place on one hand, where it doesn’t look like a speculative fiction story, but on the other, where most of the stories look to the inherent problems with humanity, this story fits right in.
“Pump Six” – The only original story to the anthology, “Pump Six” reminded me mostly of Soylent Green with an overpopulated New York City, but with populations of mutants, one that looks at a collapse of high society and the people left to deal with the resulting infrastructure. This story serves as a good finale to this already excellent collection.
Pump Six and Other Stories is a fascinating series of short stories that look not only to the dark future that Bacigalupi conceptualizes, but it goes a level deeper, and looks at the primary cause of this future: it is one that is the making of only ourselves. There’s no external alien threat that changes the world or catastrophic natural phenomenon that people must deal with, it’s the actions of the people who live here today who cause the biggest problems, and demonstrates what we might have to go through to live together on this world in the years ahead. This focus sets this, and Bacigalupi’s other stories far apart from other near-future stories, and helps to give some level of credibility to a new style of science fiction, one that he seems to be at the front of with his unique vision of the world. One thing’s for sure: I hope he’s wrong about where we’re headed. It isn’t pretty.
See also: John’s review.