Pump Six and Other Stories Paperback – Nov 1 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Bacigalupi's stellar first collection of 10 stories displays the astute social commentary and consciousness-altering power of the very best short form science fiction. The Hugo-nominated The Calorie Man explores a post–fossil fuel future where genetically modified crops both feed and power the world, and greedy megacorporations hold the fates of millions in their hands. The People of Sand and Slag envisions a future Earth as a contaminated wasteland inhabited by virtually indestructible post-humans who consume stone and swim in petroleum oceans. The Tamarisk Hunter deals with the effects of global warming on water rights in the Southwest, while the title story, original to this volume, follows a New York sewage treatment worker who struggles to repair his antiquated equipment as the city's inhabitants succumb to the brain-damaging effects of industrial pollutants. Deeply thought provoking, Bacigalupi's collected visions of the future are equal parts cautionary tale, social and political commentary and poignantly poetic, revelatory prose. (Apr.)
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These are dark stories of a Dalai Lama in a datacube, a modified human, a world of scavengers, a cultural conflict, genetically engineered life forms, population crises, life in a future Thailand, murder and a polluted world, as well as the tamarisk hunter. To a large degree these are cautionary tales - tales of what might be, if we take no action or take the wrong action. The biggest fear is that they will happen despite anything we can do and the author does not relieve us of this fear. Finally, these are finely crafted stories of the very near and far futures of human existence and they will leave you very uneasy. For all that, they are well worth the reading.
For example, "The People of Sand and Slag" and "The Tamarisk Hunter" feature near-future humans who have gone to terrifying lengths to adapt to the ruination of the world by our current pollution patterns, and "The Calorie Man" shows a disturbing worldview based on the little-known current social problem of the creeping corporate control of farming practices. "The Pasho" and "Yellow Card Man" are allegories of globalization and the slowly developing misery to come from this modern ideological craze. Another high point here (in a collection full of high points) is the beautifully disturbing "The Fluted Girl," a tale of body modification gone mad. Bacigalupi's stories are consistently haunting but often with open-ended conclusions, giving the reader a feeling of possible hope amidst ecological and social chaos. If you're into modern speculative fiction and distressingly believable dystopian visions, keep an eye on Paolo Bacigalupi. A star is born. [~doomsdayer520~]
"Pocketful of Dharma" (1999) -- a young street urchin finds a digital storage device which contains some startling data. This is Bacigalupi's first short story -- and it's impressive. I love the premise of this story and its ambiguous ending. It would be fun to see Bacigalupi extend this one into a novel.
"The Fluted Girl" (2003) -- a young girl is at the mercy of her cruel and ambitious mistress. There's a scene in this story that's eerie, chilling, and strangely beautiful. Another ambiguous but satisfying ending.
"The People of Sand and Slag" (2004, Nebula nomination, Hugo nomination) -- three colleagues are surprised to find an extinct species: a dog. Although this one was nominated for a Nebula and Hugo and has some fascinating ideas, it lacks Bacigalupi's usual subtlety and feels a bit heavy-handed.
"The Pasho" (2004) -- an educated and enlightened man returns to his primitive village. This one has a surprise ending that was really well done.
"The Calorie Man" (2005, Theodore Sturgeon Award, Hugo nomination) -- set in Paolo Bacigalupi's Windup world (the setting for his multi-award winning novel The Windup Girl), generipping and bioterrorism have destroyed the world's food supply, leaving an oligopoly of a few biotech firms. It took me a while to get the feel for this blighted world, partly because I was listening on audio and couldn't see the words (e.g., At first I didn't realize it was "joules" and not "jewels"). Once I read a couple of pages of the print version at Nightshade's website, I was fine and loved it. This is excellent world building.
"The Tamarisk Hunter" (2006) -- during Big Daddy Drought in Colorado, Lolo has found a way to make sure he keeps his job. This is the weakest story. It's well-written, but lacks the superior qualities of the other stories.
"Pop Squad" (2006) -- death has been conquered, human evolution is over, and breeding is now illegal. This story is incredibly disturbing, but wonderfully thought-provoking. The craftsmanship -- the symbolism, the imagery, and the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness, evolution and decay, and life and death -- is sublime.
"Yellow Card Man" (2006, Hugo nomination) -- a once-proud Chinese shipping magnate who now lives on the streets of Bangkok finds that "fate has a way of balancing itself." Another Windup world tale, this one had me riveted. I must read that book!
"Softer" (2007) -- a man who just killed his wife experiences the world differently in his last days of freedom. Ironically, this is the only story which isn't set in a hellish dystopia, but it's the most disturbing of all. I actually had to fast forward through some of the tracks. Perhaps what was scariest is that the murderer's thoughts made complete sense to me!
"Pump Six" (2008, Locus Award) -- Travis, who works for the sewage plant, keeps the toilets running. This is another especially well-crafted piece which is slightly humorous, has an amazing stream-of-consciousness scene that comes across great in audio, and has a slow, chilling, inconspicuous reveal.
I listened to Brilliance Audio's version of Pump Six and Other Stories, read by James Chen, Jonathan Davis, and Eileen Stevens. Chen was a perfect pick for the Windup stories and Jonathan Davis, a favorite of mine, had some glorious moments (though he had a tendency to suddenly and inexplicably affect a bad Southern accent occasionally).
Every single one of these stories is disturbing, but they're also excellently written and unforgettable. Bleak, pessimistic dystopian literature isn't usually my thing, but Paolo Bacigalupi's stories make great reading due to their superior construction, moody immersive atmospheres, tantalizingly provocative ideas, and sometimes-subtle warnings. Everything Paolo Bacigalupi writes goes on my TBR list.
The problem I had is that many of the stories were... depressing. Not disturbing. I'm okay with disturbing. Instead, many of the stories were just sad. It often seemed as though a patina of hopelessness was washed over the pages. And I don't do sad very well, even though I recognize the skill both in the worldbuilding and writing itself.
As it stands, the skill on display made this collection worth reading, even if I didn't actually *like* it. But if depressing plots don't bother you, then Mr. Bacigalupi's writing in this collection will be a treat, and you should snag it ASAP.
Many of these stories work from the same starting point as the two novels: humanity is attempting to extract beauty, or at least a semblance of normal life, from the wreckage they created when forcibly turning the environment, their society, or both (as the two are inextricably connected in these stories) into something it was never meant to be. Meanwhile, the people who are directly or indirectly responsible for the chaos are either trying to leverage more gains from the destruction or trying to come to terms with what they've created.
In short, these are mostly environment-focused dystopias, but like all great science fiction writers, Paolo Bacigalupi is more concerned with the human impact of the scientific changes (be they sociological, environmental, political,...) he uses as starting points for his stories than with the hard science behind them. The end result is an incredibly strong but quite dark collection of short science fiction stories spanning the author's career. It's also interesting that, because the stories are arranged in the order in which they were published, you can actually see Paolo Bacigalupi become a better writer from story to story.
In the first two stories, "Pocketful of Dharma" and "The Fluted Girl", his style is still a bit hesitant and uneven, but that's easily balanced by the stories' concepts and surprise twists, which completely took me by surprise. Especially "The Fluted Girl" has a huge "reveal" that absolutely floored me.
In "The People of Sand and Slag", the Earth is ruined and humans have become indestructible, genetically engineered monsters. The story describes the reaction of a group of security guards when they find an actual living creature -- a dog, no less. This is science fiction with such a powerful psychological wallop that it has the same impact as horror.
"The Pasho" compares the power of knowledge to the power of physical strength, as it describes the return of a young man to his desert tribe. The man, now a "pasho" dedicated to preserving knowledge, quickly discovers he has become a stranger in his former home. This story, together with a few others in this collection, has a sufficiently interesting setting that it would be wonderful to see it developed into a full-length work in the future.
Not coincidentally, two of the stories in this collection ("The Calorie Man" and "Yellow Card Man"), were actually the starting point for Paolo Bacigalupi's celebrated debut novel The Windup Girl. They're set in the same fictional universe, and one of them can actually be read as the start of the story arc of one of its characters. Both are excellent and highly recommended to readers who enjoyed The Windup Girl.
Between those two stories, you'll find "The Tamarisk Hunter", a frighteningly realistic look at a near-future Colorado in the grip of a long-term draught, and "Pop Squad", which is easily the best story in the collection and one of the most memorable SF stories I've ever read. It's so tightly written, with such a horrid opening and such a stunning climax, that it affected me almost physically. Looking around on Bacigalupi's blog, I discovered that he used mannerisms from his own son to describe the children in the story, which adds a whole new layer of psychological horror to the story. Simply unforgettable.
The collection closes out strongly with "Softer", a terrifying look into the strangely calm mind of a murderer, and "Pump Six", about a devolved future version of humanity that has forgotten how to manage even their most basic necessities.
Pump Six and Other Stories is a stunningly good collection of short fiction by an author who's fast on his way to becoming one of the premier names in SF. Highly recommended.