I have heard a lot about Paolo Bacigalupi, much of it good; and I thought it was about time I got acquainted with his work. I’ve started with what built his reputation – his short fiction. Pump Six is a collection of ten stories, presented in chronological order of publication, and dating as far back as 1999. From reading it, I’ve discovered that (with a few reservations), Bacigalupi’s work deserves to be spoken of so highly.
Right from the start, Bacigalupi shows himself to be a writer of great texture; he knows just how to bring his worlds to life. Here, for example, is an extract from the book’s very first page, describing the construction of a new ‘biologic city’, which is being grown as much as built:
It grew on lattices of minerals, laying its own skeleton and following with cellulose skin. Infrastructure strong and broad, growing and branching, it settled roots deep into the green fertile soil of the Sichuan basin. It drew nutrients and minerals frmo the soil and sun, and the water of the rancid Bing Jiang; sucking at pollutants as willingly as it ate the sunlight which filtered through twining sooty mist.
(‘Pocketful of Dharma’)
Time and again, Bacigalupi captures this disorientating sense of the future’s being alien-and-yet-not. And the futures he creates are typically under stress: a problem from now stretched into a crisis and beyond, until it shapes the world. So, in ‘The Tamarisk Hunter’, water shortages mean there’s a bounty on the stuff, and good money to be made by anyone willing to seek out the plants that store large amounts of it. In ‘The Calorie Man’, the problem is energy: with traditional sources (presumably) depleted, we have turned entirely to biofuels. In this world, crops have effectively replaced money, so even the smallest amount of energy is expended with caution – and the scale and structure of society have naturally been affected by this.
A particularly harrowing example of Bacigalupi’s futures is the world of ‘Pop Squad’, whose key problem was one of population. The solution was ‘rejoo’, a technique which halts the ageing process – with the side-effect of infertility. But who’d want to reproduce, when they could be immortal? Some still do, apparently, even though it’s illegal and (effectively) a death sentence – but there are ‘pop squads’ for dealing with the results of that.
This piece is a very effective portrait of a pop squad member questioning his assumptions. Bacigalupi’s control is superb, as the tale progresses from the initial shocking moment, through the growth of the protagonist’s doubt (though the ending doesn’t have quite the same impact). I also appreciate Bacigalupi’s refusal (as I see it) to reduce the issue of rejoo to a simple choice between good or bad (though I think the story is more of the opinion that it’s a bad thing). Leaving aside the issue that the utterly reprehensible pop squads were created because of it, there are both advantages and disadvantages to accepting or rejecting rejoo; and ‘Pop Squad’ is a stronger story because of that.
Another characteristic common to a good number of the stories in Pump Six is that they show how people have become distorted by what’s happened to the world, and often in ways that are deeply troubling to us. We see this in the protagonist of ‘Pop Squad’, and also in the altered humans of ‘The People of Sand and Slag’. In this tale, environmental change has precipitated the development of ‘weeviltech’, which enables people to heal from even extreme injury (severed limbs can just grow back), and to eat rocks and mud – but their mentality and ethics have become so far removed from ours that reading about them is a highly discomforting (though powerful) experience. It’s not really necessary for Bacigalupi to have one of his characters ask ‘If someone came from the past, to meet us here and now, what do you think they’d say about us? Would they even call us human?’ and another reply, ‘No, they’d call us gods,’ because the narrative itself makes the same ironic point forcefully enough. But it’s an arresting point all the same.
Bacigalupi’s characters with alien mentalities don’t all reside in the future. ‘Softer’, the one non-sf story in the collection, is narrated by a man who has just killed his wife – they were in bed, she nudged and chided him for not doing the dishes, he retaliated with a pillow, and… well, there you go. What’s so chilling about this story is that the narrator is so casual about what he’s done; and that he convinces as a character, even though his thought processes are unfathomable.
And it’s not just minds which are transformed in these stories – so are bodies. ‘The People of Sand and Slag’ is one example, of course; but the physical transformation is perhaps even more dramatic in ‘The Fluted Girl’. Here, we find a society which has organised itself into fiefdoms, one of which is ruled by Madame Belari, an actress with ambitions to become an entertainment mogul, as it were.
Her star attractions are Lidia and Nia, twins whom Belari enslaved as children, and forced to undergo treatments that arrested their physical growth, sculpted their bodies, and left them with brittle bones. It’s the slow, elegant unveiling of the situation that makes this story work, along with the subtextual examination of the desire for ‘fame at any price’, and the effect it may have on others.
‘The Fluted Girl’ is hardly a rosy vision; but there’s a kind of cautious optimism towards the end, with the possibility that Lidia might be on the way to breaking out of her present circumstances. And this is an example of something else that features in several of Bacigalupi’s stories: characters and lives on the cusp of change.
Take, for instance, ‘Pump Six’, a somewhat uneasy but interesting fusion of two different kinds of sf story. It starts off reading something like a spoof of old-school sf, wherein our narrator has a few casual digs at the women in his life, then tries to work out why one of his city’s sewage pumps isn’t working – then the tale mutates into something rather more solemn, and we discover that this world is not as we thought it was. I don’t think ‘Pump Six’ is entirely successful – for example, the protagonist’s dismissive attitude towards women doesn’t get the comeuppance it warrants, which makes its inclusion more problematic – but I was certainly surprised where (I assume) I was meant to be surprised; and, in that sense, the story does its job just fine.
What can I say about the stories of Pump Six as a whole, then? They don’t make for easy or light reading; yet they’re not unwelcoming, either. They are snapshots of worlds and people in the midst of difficult times – one might even say at times that difficulty has become a way of life – but not without a sense of resilience. Life (or at least the world) goes on. I’m glad I discovered the work of Paolo Bacigalupi; if you haven’t yet, I’d recommend you do the same.
Three of the stories from Pump Six are available to read on Paolo Bacigalupi’s website: