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REVIEW: Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi

REVIEW SUMMARY: A great showcase of Bacigalupi’s unique style and his mastery of short fiction.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A collection of ten stories written by Paolo Bacigalupi. (A limited edition contains an additional story.)


PROS: Nine of the ten stories were good; three of those were outstanding.
CONS: One story dangerously close to being mediocre.
BOTTOM LINE: Clear evidence of Bacigalupi’s control over the form of short fiction.

Paolo Bacigalupi is rapidly the ranks of short fiction stardom, collecting accolades and critical acclaim at nearly every turn. Evidence supporting this can be found in his recent ten-story collection, Pump Six and Other Stories, which almost includes his entire short fiction output to date. (Night Shade Books also publishes a limited edition that contains the missing eleventh story, “Small Offerings”, which I reviewed in Fast Forward 1.)

One thing is clear: Bacigalupi does not write fiction just for the sake of it. Each story is rooted in one social issue or another. The backdrops he paints are mostly bleak, making the overall collection a tasty smorgasbord of Dystopias. He shows us eco-ravaged futures and technologies that create unique circumstances for the protagonists. While I’m not usually interested in science fiction as social commentary, Bacigalupi writes with a thankfully subtle hand, allowing the reader the take in as much – or as little – as he or she wishes. Furthermore, each of his stories explores a “single conceit”, the hallmark of classic short fiction, only as seen through the modern eyes of the socially conscious. The overall quality of the collection is thus fairly strong, with some of these stories garnering Hugo and Nebula nominations.

Reviewlettes of each story follow…

“Pocketful of Dharma” follows a young street beggar named Wang Jun, who is hired by some shady characters to deliver a small, blue data cube. Wang Jun doesn’t know what’s on the cube, he’s just happy to receive as payment something he can sell for food money. Wang Jun lives in a future China where the city of Chengdu is slowly being replaced by a new biotech city growing up from the ground. People of high social status live in the new city while poor people like Wang Jun walk the rain-slicked streets that remind one of Blade Runner. The contents of the cube are rooted in political conflict, which Bacigalupi highlights through the social structure of the city and wonderfully portrayed life of the downtrodden. The ending, though, was weak by comparison, lacking a firm resolution to an otherwise strong setup.

[Note: The “The Fluted Girl” was originally reviewed in The Year’s Best Science Fiction #21 edited by Gardner Dozois.] In The Fluted Girl, Lidia and her twin sister have been surgically modified to be human flutes. They perform in a castle for an “evil queen” who sees them as nothing more than a pet project with a capacity to make her rich and famous. Lidia has enough when she learns that the boy she likes was foiled in an attempt to kill the queen and, as punishment, is served for dinner. This story really reads like a fairy tale with the abused kids, the evil queen, the evil security officer, etc. The portrayal of Lidia is well done; the modifications have made her so fragile that she cannot walk without assistance. And it was easy to hate the “queen” (Madame Belari) and her security officer (Burson) who is a genetic mix of man, dog and jackal. The ending is left somewhat open-ended.

[Note: The “The People of Sand and Slag” was originally reviewed in Science Fiction: The Best of 2004 edited by Karen Haber and Jonathan Strahan.] A group of miners, bio-enhanced to survive harsh environments through the wonders of “weeviltech”, find a biologically unaltered dog – a creature believed to have been extinct for decades. Interesting was the portrait of how humanity has “evolved” with the aid of technology. They eat sand, are impervious to acid and amputate body parts at the drop of the hat. (By morning, the arm or leg grows back.) In effect, mankind has achieved a form of immortality through science. When they find the unaltered dog, a “lesser” life form, they question their own heritage and what it means to be human. Ultimately they decide that the unaltered species of man was far too vulnerable to lead an enjoyable life. Good stuff.

In “The Pasho,” a man returns to the traditional Jai village in which he was born, after having spent ten years learning the ways of modernization among the Keli, who were at war with the Jai a generation ago. As a revered Pasho, Raphel has literally earned his stripes; skin etchings serve as reminders of his knowledge. But traditions die hard. Raphel is rejected by the Jai people – especially Raphel’s grandfather who fought the Keli in the war and who loathes what his grandson has become. There’s so much culture in this story that one hardly notices the pot-boiling tension between Raphel and his grandfather. But the final scene crescendos into something that makes you think back to all the skillfully laid clues that came before.

[Note: The “The Calorie Man” was originally reviewed as part of the 2006 Hugo Award Short Fiction Nominees reading project.] Thanks to some unfortunate side effects of genetic engineering (like an out-of-control weevil that consumed the planet’s crops), the world population – what’s left of it – is starving. But genetic engineering has provided a solution of sorts by way of SoyPRO and HiGro, man-made food substitutes. The food is used, in turn, to feed the animals (also gene-engineered) who convert it into much-needed energy. This story, set in and around the Mississippi river and New Orleans, follows an Indian named Lalji who travels the river posing as an antique dealer, but who is secretly a calorie bandit, much to the consternation of the IP (intellectual property) police of the monopolistic food companies. Lalji and his partner Creo are tasked with transporting “The Calorie Man”, one of the last of the geneticists, so he can bring about the demise of the food monopolies. This is an interesting story for its setting and situation. The world portrayed seems to be suffering from a mild case of post-apocalypse: hunger and energy are seriously constrained, population is decreasing as people die off – and yet there is enough civilization to maintain a corporation? There is also no real sense that technology is of any use anymore to anyone besides the food companies, unless you count the kink-springs used to power the boats that travel the river. This made for a slightly unbalanced portrayal of an otherwise dark future, but that could be the result of the story focusing on Lalji alone, a choice which did lend much to this story’s wonderful mood.

“The Tamarisk Hunter” is a dark story with a bleaker ending. It’s set in a future where national water shortages have resulted in rationing, legal maneuvers to move people off their land, and some tricky political games by California to horde water. This is bad news for Lolo, who makes his meager living killing the water-hungry Tamarisk trees, all for less than three dollars a day. Lolo gets by like most of his kind: by stealing water. A visit from the local lawmen creates some welcome, tense moments because of this situation, though their visit has less to do with Lolo’s illicit activities than they do with the inevitability of diminishing resources.

“Pop Squad” is, like other Bacigalupi stories, uncomfortable in content and set in another near-future dystopia that is so unlike our own in a singular way. It takes several clues to realize what is going on, and when it clicks, it’s shocking. The society in this story has achieved immortality through “rejoo” and child bearing is outlawed. To have children, the mothers must stop taking the rejoo, thereby forfeiting their own lives for the sake of their children-to-be. The narrator is assigned to a task force that kills these children who were illegally conceived. He increasingly begins to question what would drive a person to give up eternal life, a line of thinking that affects his ideals. The dinosaur symbolism (extinction and the absence of children, old ways of thinking, etc.) is laid on a little thick here, but this story works well; not just for its shocking and graphic scenes, but also for the sf-nal concepts it depicts. Well done.

[The “Yellow Card Man” was originally reviewed as part of the 2007 Hugo Award Short Fiction Nominees reading project.] In an overcrowded Thailand, a Chinese refugee struggles to survive. Bacigalupi’s story is set in the same future of last year’s Hugo-nominee, “The Calorie Man” where genetic engineering has wiped out all the crops save for those owned by the corporations that hold the few patents on resistant crop strains. The refuges that come to Bangkok were looking for a better future but found instead a life of extreme poverty. The country houses them in high-rises without air conditioning, cramped together in unacceptable living conditions. The focus of the story is on Tranh, a Chinese refugee who was once a successful businessman until his people (and his family) were massacred. Now Tranh is left with nothing, struggling to find scraps of precious food. A not-too-promising job lead – which takes the first thirty percent of the story to get to while the narrative loiters with much world building – gives Tranh some slim hope of working his way up from poverty. In this, Tranh is a sympathetic character, a victim of unfortunate circumstance. Tranh also has a table-turning encounter with a former employee, fired in disgrace by Tranh himself but who is now much better off than his former boss. The employee (Ma Ping) shows compassion for Tranh in his time of need and Tranh’s circumstances elicit humility at first, then anger. This is a sign of things to come. Tranh’s situation gets the best of him and the hope of finding a job is overcome by a chance to get ahead at the expense of others. In short, his misfortune turns to desperation and a sympathetic character becomes much less so.

While reading “Softer”, one gets the impression that Bacigalupi is thinking way too much about murder. But it’s to the reader’s intense enjoyment – through palpable discomfort – that he has done so. This is a seemingly simple yet effective portrait of a man who just killed his wife, who contemplates life in that “peaceful moment between crime and confession”. [Shiver.] The narrator is clearly imbalanced but his clarity of life and its true rewards (and punishments) is nonetheless astute. The writing here is chilling in its detail and superbly effective at creating a mood of growing uneasiness. Excellent work.

There’s something unidentifiable and off kilter at the beginning of “Pump Six”. For one thing, the wife of the protagonist is stone-cold irrational, wielding a frying pan as a lethal weapon, with the husband (Alvin) taking it in stride. Something is clearly amiss, and it isn’t until he arrives at his job maintaining the city’s sewage pumps that we see others are equally challenged intellectually. Alvin’s boss, for example, happily proclaims she can read, too, as if defending her intelligence and claiming intellectual superiority. We know by know, of course, that Alvin is one of the few, if not the only, person around with a reasonable amount of brains. Others around him have more in common with the ever-increasing population of trogs: the monkey-like creatures that openly mate with reckless abandon and serve no other purpose than to foreshadow mankind’s eventual fate. When pump number six breaks down, threatening the precious drinking water and breathable air with its released chemicals – which we can surmise is the cause of mankind’s slow descent from brainy to brainless – Alvin lacks the means to fix it and so embarks on a short quest to the local college Engineering department and library. What he finds is surprising to us, but shouldn’t be for him – yet it is and Alvin comes off as looking none too bright after all. The theme of regression is certainly interesting, but this story somehow seemed to lack the import of such a weighty topic.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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