Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi
Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum
03 March 2008
Paolo Bacigalupi's name has been worming its way into the collective consciousness of SF fandom for several years now, accruing recognition and praise along with Hugo, Nebula, and Sturgeon nominations (and, at the last count, one win), the cumulative weight of which is now sufficient to warrant a single-author collection, encompassing ten previously published stories (if you buy the limited edition of the collection; if you don't, you miss out on "Small Offerings", which seems like bad form) as well as an original piece, the title story. Genre writing is famously hospitable to short stories, with authors like Joe Hill and Kelly Link establishing their reputation firstly, and in Link's case exclusively, on the strength of their stories, and Bacigalupi's publishers are obviously hoping for the same effect. Link has even provided a blurb for Pump Six, but the money quote belongs to Robert J. Sawyer and those seven magic words: "the Ted Chiang of the new millennium."
Leaving aside the presumably unintentional slight against Mr. Chiang (who has published four stories this millennium, most recently "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate"), the comparison seems both obvious and warranted. Chiang and Bacigalupi are both young writers at the beginning of their career, working exclusively in the short form and gaining accolades for smart, inventive, thought-provoking stories. In a field that all too often forces readers to choose between the two, Chiang and Bacigalupi similarly possess both a way with words and the capacity to spin original SFnal ideas and develop them into compelling stories. But after reading Pump Six from cover to cover and immersing oneself in Bacigalupi's invented worlds, a crucial difference between the two writers emerges. Chiang is a straight-up science fiction writer with occasional leanings towards fantasy. Though his stories are grounded in SFnal ideas, about halfway through Pump Six I started to wonder whether Bacigalupi wasn't, in fact, writing horror.
Several of the stories in Pump Six are overtly horrific. "Softer," from the John Klima-edited anthology Logorrhea, is an atypical entry in Bacigalupi's bibliography. It is neither set in the future, nor is its premise SFnal. It describes the hours and days after its protagonist, for no discernible reason, kills his wife and then, with no show of remorse or grief, leaves her in the bathtub to decompose while he joyously contemplates his release from the bonds of middle-class existence (that its protagonist is middle class is yet another way in which "Softer" diverges from the rest of the stories in the collection, whose characters are generally impoverished and disenfranchised). Even more blatantly horrific is "The Fluted Girl," about a slave whose owner has had her surgically altered into what is quite literally a performance piece. The scene in which the extent and purpose of Lidia's transformation are revealed is one of the most disquieting, and yet oddly compelling, pieces of writing I have read recently, and though I reproduce the key passage from it here I would urge those of you who haven't read the story to seek it out in order to feel its full effect:
They stood revealed, pale elfin creatures of music. The guests around them gasped as the notes poured out brighter now, unmuffled by clinging clothes. The girls' musical graftings shone: cobalt boreholes in their spines, glinting stops and keys made of brass and ivory that ran along their fluted frames and contained a hundred possible instruments within the structure of their bodies. (p. 41)
Many of the stories in Pump Six are driven by this kind of revelation, the sickening lurch one feels at the transformation of the familiar into something alien which is at the heart of horror writing. But the horror that runs through Pump Six is the kind that is at the very core, or perhaps origins, of science fiction. It's the horror Victor Frankenstein feels when he gazes at his creation and knows it for a monster. It's the horror the monster feels when it realizes that it is just human enough to know how inhuman it truly is. In most of the stories in Pump Six, Bacigalupi delivers the horror of humanity made inhuman by technology, and by its own hubris.
Though not a fix-up, many of the stories in Pump Six are set in the same or similar futures, in which our dependence on oil becomes our undoing as the precious resource finally runs out, genetically engineered diseases rampage through crops, paving the way for corporate-owned GM strains, and the environment becomes ever more polluted and inhospitable. A mainstream writer might have imagined this all too likely near future and, having brought his readers to it, left them there. Horror-infused or not, however, Bacigalupi is grounded in science fiction, and he imagines not only the impending collapse of our economy and way of life but the sometimes horrific ways humanity finds of dealing with it, and the effect they have on the human experience.
Stories like "The People of Sand and Slag" and "Pop Squad" examine the dehumanizing effects of these solutions. In the latter story, immortality has been achieved, but at the cost of future generations, whose conception would tax the Earth's already strained resources. The narrator is an enforcer whose job it is to track down illegally birthed children and kill them. Over the course of the story his unthinking disgust at, and incomprehension of, the choice to procreate give way to a grudging curiosity (in both its premise and its plot progression, "Pop Squad" is reminiscent of Fahrenheit 451), and when he finally asks a mother why she would choose to sacrifice immortality for a child that will probably never live to adulthood, she disdainfully diagnoses the sickness at the heart of their society:
"I'm thinking we need something new. I've been alive for one hundred and eighteen years and I'm thinking that it's not just about me. I'm thinking I want a baby and I want to see what she sees today when she wakes up and what she'll find and see that I've never seen before because that's new. Finally, something new. I love seeing things through her little eyes and not through dead eyes like yours." (p. 159)
In "The People of Sand and Slag," humanity has achieved not only immortality but invulnerability. Augmented by "weeviltech," humans can essentially live forever, regenerating from catastrophic injuries and drawing sustenance from the titular substances. The story describes the disastrous consequences of living without weakness. Its characters live in a blasted, lifeless, polluted wasteland, in which nothing natural can survive. They don't care, because their augmentations allow them to thrive in such a punishing environment, and they can't imagine the purpose of sharing it with other, less fortunate lifeforms. When they discover a natural, unaugmented dog who has somehow survived, they are initially intrigued by it—by the fact that "It looks at us, and there's something there, and it's not us. I mean, take any bio-job out there, and it's basically us, poured into another shape, but not that dog..." (p. 64)—but ultimately they become bored and irritated by its dependence, and make a sport of eating it.
I came late to the Bacigalupi party, mainly due to my resistance to "The People of Sand and Slag." It took me three tries to admit that it is a powerful, wrenching piece because I kept being distracted by its being, ultimately, a dead dog story. It's hard not to suspect an author of manipulation when they trot out pets being cruelly killed and eaten by their owners. And the truth is that many of the stories in Pump Six are manipulative, sometimes quite obviously and overbearingly so. The juxtaposition of the brave mothers and their innocent children with the hedonistic society of the immortals in "Pop Squad" is stark, and quite obviously trying to plug into stereotypes of wealthy, self-involved yuppies too wrapped up in their carefree existence to care for another as hardworking middle class people regularly do. In "The Calorie Man," the world's economy, post oil collapse, centers around calories—the energy required to feed genetically engineered beasts of burden who produce storable kinetic energy. The corporations who impose strict control on the world's food and energy supplies by enforcing "intellectual property" regulations on the distribution of patented, sterile, disease-resistant seed strains play on our resentment and distrust of big energy, big biotech, and copyright hawks.
I was, however, finally forced to admit that Bacigalupi's writing transcends his occasionally inelegant storytelling devices. "The People of Sand and Slag" isn't a disturbing story simply because it ends with its characters devouring their pet, but because of the oppressive bleakness of the future it describes, in which the story's resolution is but a final indignity. Through tiny details such as the characters saying, of the dog, that it is "as delicate as rock" (p. 56) or the description of a person emerging from the ocean "[glistening] with hundreds of iridescent petroleum jewels," (p. 64) Bacigalupi creates a fully realized and entirely terrifying world. In "Pop Squad," the narrator's visceral disgust at the conditions that mothers endure in order to conceal their children—"The familiar stench of unwashed bodies, cooked food, and shit ... the maggot debris of the spaghetti dinner ... this furtive nasty life of rotting garbage and brief illicit forays into daylight" (pp. 137-8)—is almost physically revolting, and wars with our disgust at his actions in such a way as to almost make us see his point. It's not subtle, but boy is it ever effective.
The most accomplished and effective piece in the collection, and the one that finally made me realize what an exceptional writer Bacigalupi truly is, is "Yellow Card Man," which represents the culmination and coming together of all of Bacigalupi's recurring themes. Set in the same universe as "The Calorie Man," "Yellow Card Man" tells the story of Tranh, a Chinese man who fled ethnic cleansing in his native Malaysia to a barely hospitable Thailand, where he and other refugees, dubbed yellow card people for the color of their IDs, eke out a living in a society that views them as pests and leeches. Once a powerful shipping magnate, Tranh lost both his wealth and his family to brutal violence (expertly and hauntingly described in the story's opening paragraph), and now scrambles to feed himself and stay afloat for just one more day.
"Yellow Card Man"'s basic plot is reminiscent of "Pocket Full of Dharma," Bacigalupi's first published story and the first piece in the collection. Both stories focus on a weak, disenfranchised character subsisting on the very fringes of society—"Dharma"'s protagonist is the beggar boy Wang Jun, orphaned by a futuristic plague and left to wander the streets of Chengdu and fight for his survival—and it is interesting to compare the two pieces and see how Bacigalupi's talent matured and came to fruition in the interval between writing them. "Dharma," though promising, is unfocused and overlong, and doesn't do quite enough to convey the crushing helplessness and hopelessness of its protagonist's situation. "Yellow Card Man," in contrast, is a masterclass in the dehumanizing effects of poverty and weakness.
How many times did he tell his sons that spending money to make more money was perfectly acceptable? But the timid yellow card refugee that he has become counseled him to save his baht. Like an ignorant peasant mouse he clutched his cash to himself and slept in pitch-black stairwells. He should have stood like a tiger and braved the night curfew and the ministry's white shirts and their black batons ... And now he is late and reeks of the stairwells and stands behind ten others, all of whom must drink and fill a bucket and brush their teeth with the brown water of the Chao Phraya River. (p. 166)
Even more insidious than the weakness born in him by his circumstances is the disquiet that gnaws at Tranh's soul, the disquiet that only a refugee, only a person who has had everything snatched away from them, can truly understand. Though he once believed that people make their own luck, he now spends his days in terror of running out of it, and losing, yet again, his safe haven. It is this fear that drives Tranh to a shocking act at the story's end, an act which is, at one and the same time, evil and dehumanizing, and an affirmation of his enduring spirit and will to survive. It is a fear that permeates every story in Pump Six. Every piece in the collection is predicated on the notion that it is all about to run out—oil, abundant food, clean air, drinkable water, safety, culture, civilization, the very core of what it is to be human. Pump Six is the bleakly terrifying vision of a man who believes that we are standing beneath a wave that has peaked, and is about to crash down upon us. Though I've called the collection a work of horror and stand by that characterization, Pump Six is effectively horrifying because it does something innately SFnal—takes a look at the world, and imagines what might happen next.
With its contents presented roughly in order of publiction, Pump Six is effectively a retrospective of Bacigalupi's career thus far, and as such offers us a chance to observe a writer growing, discovering his voice and dominant themes, and perfecting them. The later pieces find Bacigalupi experimenting with new themes and styles—"Softer," as I've already said, is a horrific character piece set in the present day, and the title story tries to mix up Bacigalupi's pessimistic vision of the future by telling a story in a farcical tone, with somewhat mixed results—but the collection as a whole gives the impression of an author who has thoroughly and effectively explored a theme, and who must now either repeat it (and possibly find new approaches towards it) or move on to the next level. Bacigalupi is currently working on a novel set in the universe of "The Calorie Man" and "Yellow Card Man," which seems like a logical next step. It remains to be seen whether he can extend this universe to a wider canvas (and whether, as he himself has wondered in interviews, 400 pages of his pessimism might not prove too much for most readers to endure). We can only hope that Pump Six represents a mere stopping point in his career, from which he will go on to do even greater things.