Featured Book Review of Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi
By Jason Sanford Feb 26, 2008, 10:04 GMT
It's often said that science fiction is the literature of ideas--a fictional attempt to understand the trends and science and beliefs which continually shape our present and future worlds. Unfortunately, this view of science fiction as philosophical fiction doesn't endear the genre to many readers. After all, being beat over the head with an idea--no matter how accurate or well meaning the literary bat may be--still means a blunt object must impact your brain. Since most people prefer to escape into fiction instead of being mugged by it, the view of science fiction as the literature of ideas has fallen on hard times of late.
Which is why I'm happy to say that not only is Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi the best science fiction short story collection of recent years, the reason for this success has nothing to do with literary bats being applied to any reader's brain.
Don't get me wrong--the stories in Pump Six are boiling over with ideas. As befits Paolo Bacigalupi, who in his day job works for the environmental newspaper High Country News, our shared environmental future is a major theme throughout his stories. Other ideas he explores includes concepts of intellectual property, media personalities, ethnicity, genocide, and more. But while there are ideas a plenty in this book, Bacigalupi's true strength as a writer rests in his exquisitely crafted language. In the heart-breakingly real characters he creates. In the emotions he tears one by one from his readers. In his plots which are at once so logical yet unexpected.
In short, Bacigalupi's stories are first and foremost great stories. The ideas come second. But what a second they are.
For example, in Bacigalupi's story "The Fluted Girl," the main character is a surgically-modified young woman named Lidia whose body has been shaped into a living musical instrument. Lidia is owned by a media star living in a futuristic feudalistic society where the ability to excite the bored elites leads to freedom, and losing your media popularity results in continued serfdom. Even though Lidia's body is so fragile that she can barely move without breaking a bone, she still dreams of rebelling against her master. But she also dreams of the only certain escape open to her: death. Which option will Lidia choose? It is a testament to the power of Bacigalupi's writing that all possibilities remain open to Lidia until the very moment the story ends.
Another great story is the Hugo-nominated "The Calorie Man." Set in America long after the collapse of our modern energy-based society, the story follows an Indian immigrant named Lalji who smuggles calories up and down the Mississippi River. The calories come from the genetically modified foodstocks which form the basis of this society's new economic order. In fact, GM foods are so important that all natural food plants in the world have been destroyed by engineered viruses and pests. However, Lalji remembers the old days when anyone could grow foods like tomatoes and corn. And in remembering the way things used to be, Lalji will have to decide how far he will go to help people reclaim the forgotten seeds of their heritage.
In the "Yellow Card Man," likewise nominated for the Hugo Award for best novelette, an old ethnic Chinese refugee named Tranh trades the genocide of Indonesia for a slow death in the hot and humid streets of Bangkok. Even though Tranh knows his time has come and gone, he refuses to give up. He is haunted by the powerful man he used to be; by the words he used to utter on how people create their own fates. But as Tranh realizes by the end of the story, no matter who he once was, he will now do anything to survive. And what he does will thrill and disgust every reader.
Other powerful stories in the collection include the often-reprinted "The People of Sand and Slag," which posits a future where humanity has evolved beyond needing a true environment to live in, and the sadistic and disturbing "Pop Squad," which examines a world where people are continually restored to youthful lives--and children ruthlessly killed as a menace to this hedonistic society.
If there is one recurrent theme in Bacigalupi's stories, it is this: the will of humans to survive, no matter what is thrown at us. Our determination to look into the worst of situations and find a way to keep going. Few writers in any genre have captured this human survivalistic essence as well as Bacigalupi. And he takes the theme to new levels in the best story in the collection, which is also, ironically, one of the few stories not previously published--the collection's title story of "Pump Six."
This story focuses on Travis Alvarez, a maintenance man who helps keep the sewage pumps going in a future New York City. Because of ever-present pollution, the intelligence of the city's residents has plummeted to incredible lows. Even Alvarez himself is not an intelligent man, being at best average by today's terms. However, he has enough knowledge and concern left to know it is vitally important that the city's ancient sewage pumps keep running, or else a toxic mess will kill millions. But most New Yorkers don't see what harm can come from a few backed up toilets. Even his girlfriend, who almost blows up their apartment searching for a gas leak with a lit match, tells Alvarez not to take his job so seriously. Why worry about things like sewage pumps when there are so many parties and drugs to be had?
In many ways "Pump Six" is a reverse echo of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, a 21st century warning about how societies exist because people like Alvarez do their part to maintain them. Just as in Huxley's novel, everyone Alvarez encounters seems to care little beyond using sex and drugs to tune themselves into nothingness. While Alvarez is attracted to this sensual oblivion, he also knows what's at stake and that, tragically, he's not equal to the task thrust upon him. Still, reaching for that hallmark element of humanity--the endless struggle against hopeless odds--Alvarez strives to find a way to keep the pumps going.
Bacigalupi has previously been nominated for a number of Hugo and Nebula awards. If there is any justice in the world, "Pump Six" will be the story that wins him one of those coveted awards.
Other reviewers and readers have mentioned how Bacigalupi's writing resembles that of Ted Chiang, whose Stories of Your Life and Others is another must read recent speculative fiction story collection. Superficially, Chiang and Bacigalupi's writings do not resemble each other. Chiang's stories straddle the ground between myth and fantasy, creating his own unique version of reality in which the author's deliberately simple prose underplays the story until readers suddenly find themselves pondering new vistas and existences. Bacigalupi, on the other hand, crafts dense science fiction stories with lush sensual prose. Just when you think one of his stories is about to end, he takes you deeper into his imagined world.
The similarity, though, between Bacigalupi and Chiang's stories, and the reason they both succeed so well at short fiction, is that they don't sacrifice prose, characterization, plot, and emotion for ideas. Yes, the ideas are there. But they don't hit you over the head with them. And that makes the impact of these authors' ideas all the more powerful.
So if you enjoy philosophical science fiction stories, read Pump Six. If you hate philosophical science fiction stories, read Pump Six. Because like the evocative concrete rain which continually falls from the buildings in Bacigalupi's title story, Pump Six gently rains upon the reader until you find yourself swimming in a deep ocean of truth. And no matter how you approach this book--whether for the ideas or for the great stories--you won't be disappointed.