Pump Six And Other Stories (Book Review)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pump Six And Other Stories cover

Pump Six And Other Stories

 

Pump Six And Other Stories establishes its themes on the opening page: A massive new skyscraper is being built in the city of Chengdu, using new organic technology that will actually let it grow until it covers the entire city. The description is fascinating enough that readers of this fiction will feel some exhilaration at the future that technology promises. But then, the focus shifts to the main character of the story, a starving beggar boy who lives in the filth under the shadow of this skyscraper. Technology may offer a lot of potential, but what does it matter if it only helps an elite few, while the rest of humanity is used or discarded at the whim of the powerful?

These characters are actually lucky, compared to those who populate the other short stories in this collection. At least here, some people are gaining a better world. In most of Paolo Bacigalupi’s tales, the state of the world has become so horrible that even the abusive rich people would envy our standard of living today. Most of these futures are dominated by environmental disasters, but other evils are more directly man-made: Brutal Intellectual Property police are apparently the only law in “The Calorie Man”, while “The Fluted Girl” creates a culture of slavery by applying a system of stocks and investment to individual people. One of the great features of short stories is that they don’t have to end happily. Since readers don’t invest as much emotion and time into them as they do to novels, the author doesn’t feel obligated to provide a reassuring ending. Bacigalupi takes full advantage of this: Maybe half of the stories end on a note of hope for the protagonist, if you look at them right, but the overarching feeling is one of doom. Whether or not the damage is permanent, the reader will still despair at the path that humanity is taking.

And despair they will. Bacigalupi may be called a science fiction author, but these works are better described as horror. A true horror story doesn’t need shadowy monsters of fountains of blood, but should rather unsettle the reader’s comfortable life. The disasters shown in Pump Six And Other Stories feel extrapolated from the real world, and their “day after tomorrow” nature hits in a more visceral way than present-day Inconvenient Truths can.

While Bacigalupi’s future worlds are believable, his characters are what complete the stories. Just read “Yellow Card Man”, which mixes Holocaust imagery with third-world poverty to tell the story of a once-proud man who now has to scramble for basic meals as a second-class citizen. The scenes of poverty and violence will draw you into the story, but the protagonist is what will stay with you afterwards. He is reduced to degrading and immoral acts, and the reasons are completely understandable. You will identify with this man and realize how little separates you from his fate, and that is a true horror story.

Two of the most memorable stories show a civilization that has become completely disconnected from what we would call “humanity”. “The People of Sand and Slag” portrays a violent, radioactive world in which people, as well as all remaining animals, have been re-engineered to survive on anything. (Literally: They chop off their own limbs for fun, because they’ll be re-grown by the next day, and it takes tactical nukes to dismantle someone enough to kill them. The world may be a wasteland, but even “sand and slag” provide the raw materials for their nanobots to rebuild their bodies.) When the characters discover an actual dog who has somehow survived, they have no idea what to do with it. Such a fragile and temporary life is almost disgusting, and definitely too inconvenient to keep around. Their callousness is incredibly off-putting to us, but the video-game logic and attachment to technology are all too familiar. If you would rather buy a new computer game than grow your own vegetables, then the only thing separating you from these post-humans is a matter of degrees. Similarly, “Pop Squad” is about a world where everyone is immortal, but at the expense of their fertility. Abandoning one’s rejuvenation treatments to have children is a crime, and the kids are executed without trial. It’s horrifying and obviously wrong, but the narrator describes his world with a utopian fervor: Not only does everyone live in comfort, but the luxury of time means one can, say, spend fifteen years perfecting a new artistic work and still have the youthful energy to begin another one afterwards. It’s easy to see the path that led these people to their current state, since children would take away the resources that make everyone rich, and the few who choose to give up immortality quickly become “the other”.

Not everything about the book is perfect. The dystopian stories fall into the common trap of showing people who dislike the world. I think it would be much more interesting to follow the people who completely trust in the corporation controlling them, or who can’t remember the days when things were different. And by the end, a few of the stories start to feel repetitive. (Most notably “The Tamarisk Hunter”, which probably felt unique when it was published in High Country News, but doesn’t add anything at all when surrounded by Bacigalupi’s other stories.)

The only story that seems internally inconsistent is “The Calorie Man”. In a future with no easy electricity left, the people have been reduced to a low-tech life where all power must come from animals and people who wind up “spring-powered” engines. I understand the idea that all gas, coal, and nuclear power is inaccessible, but how could these people possibly not take advantage of wind or water power? (Especially since the story takes place on a river!) Despite my misgivings, though, I can understand why “The Calorie Man” won the Sturgeon Award: The idea that all power traces back to the food these people eat, while the only food is controlled by a few genetic engineering companies, is definitely a powerful one. Really, it’s amazing that I can only find one complaint about the book’s believability.

Despite the repeated themes, this collection of stories manages a good deal of variety: From tales of absolute devastation to an Idiocracy-style comedy about people too stupid to recognize their decline, and from near-future civilizations to distant, complex tribal ones, the only constant of Pump Six And Other Stories is that we need to recognize how fragile our current comfort is. This is an excellent, important work, and everyone should read it. Everyone who can stomach it, at least.

Grade: A


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  1. That’s a good point about horror. I feel like it should be distinguished from those horror *movies*, though, because this doesn’t sound anything like your typical “girl goes alone into a dark woods even though all signs point to dying screaming and crying” kind. The reason I don’t like those movies is because it all seems like gratuitous violence to me, silly or not, and I just don’t care to watch it.

    • Your comment made me want to say a lot, so I just went ahead and made a new blog post about it.

      It’s interesting, because I’m usually not a big horror fan, but I can understand why some people like it. There are good things about horror, though I find it hard to spend too much time in a genre that intentionally tries to show me things I won’t like. I’m glad I wrote the post; it gave me a new perspective on a genre I usually overlook.

  1. March 1st, 2011

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