Sunday, December 1, 2013

Pump Six and Other Stories - Paolo Bacigalupi

My first exposure to Paolo Bacigalupi's work was the story The People of Sand and Slag, which has been included in John Joseph Adams' excellent anthology Wastelands: Stories of th Apocalypse(2008.) Soon after I had the opportunity to read Bacigalupi's first collection for review. Pump Six and Other Stories was published by Night Shade Books and collects ten stories (eleven if you have the limited edition) from the period 1999 till 2008. The title story is original to the collection, the others have been published in various magazines and anthologies over the years. Having read it, I was nut surprised that Bacigalupi's first novel The Windup Girl (2009) turned out to be such a success. This collection displays Bacigalupi's talent. It  must be said that it is a seriously depressing set of stories though.

Many of the themes that would show up in his later novel. There are two stories with Asian settings for instance, not something many American science fiction writers without an Asian background have attempted. His environmental themes also show up in a number of stories. Climate change, scarcity of fossil fuels, genetic engineering, agricultural practices and water shortages all show up in one or more stories. Two pieces are set in the same future as The Windup Girl and one of them even shares a character with the novel. He has been renamed but is still clearly recognizable. If you want to know what his writing is about, Pump Six and Other Stories is the place to start.

The collection opens with A Pocket Full of Dharma (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 1999), a story set in  a future China. Wang Jun, a young boy, orphaned and homeless, attempts  to survive in the city of Chengdu by stealing and begging. Fortune seems  to smile on him when he sees a foreigner with an expensive pair of  glasses he intends to steal. Following the foreigner he is witness to  his murder. The killers allow him to take the glasses but only if he will carry a datacube for them. When the person he is supposed to  deliver it to, fails to show up he decides to keep the cube and  unwillingly becomes involved in the political struggles over Tibet. I was struck by Wang's will to survive and the lengths he will go to to fill his belly every evening. On the one hand you want to smack him for not seeing the bigger picture, on the other you fully understand his  instinct for self preservation. There is also an undertone in the story that comments on China's drive to grow and develop and the price its leaders are willing to pay for it. Thematically it is pretty dark but I also felt a sense of wonder about the development project described in the story.

The second story is The Fluted Girl (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 2003). Set in a world where in some places at least, governing seems to have reverted back to a feudal  system, with the subjects of of a fief are little more than property. For the rich, virtual immortality is available but at a high price. To gain financial independence Madame Belari has carefully raised two fluted girls. Girls that literally use each other's body as a musical  instrument. One of the two seems happy to go along with this treatment, expecting to one day become a star, but the other, Lidia, is not content. The death or her only friend has hit her hard and when it is time for Belari to reveal her carefully nurtured girls to the general public, she rebels. The only word I can think of that fits what his being done to the girls is "perverse" really. The disregard for the wellbeing or human rights of the girls is shocking. Ones Lidia's eyes are opened, there is no way back for her, she must find a way to free herself, or failing that, take revenge. It is the bleakest story in the collection and the fact that Bacigalupi leaves the reader with an open ending makes it even more depressing.

The People of Sand and Slag (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 2004) is a very different kind of story. Bacigalupi examines what it means to be human using the point of view of far future trans-human beings and, most unexpectedly, a dog. The nearly invulnerable humans inhabit a completely destroyed world. Having advanced to the point where anything can be a source of energy and body parts can be regrown in hours, the dog seems strangely vulnerable to them. And yet, it triggers something in at least one of these people. The casual brutality and the fragility of the poor dog are what gives this story it's punch. When I first read it I was very impressed with it and it holds up well after a reread.

The next story also has an air of far future science fiction, set after we have managed to wreck Earth. It takes us in another, in some ways more positive direction however. The Pasho (Asimov's September 2004) is something of a generational conflict. A young man from a desert tribe goes to the city of their historical enemy to learn the ways of the Pasho. His grandfather, who once led a raid that destroyed the city his grandson went to study, disapproves of what he has become when he returns.

The story is built on the idea that knowledge can be dangerous, especially when a society is not ready to handle it. An acceleration of knowledge is what ultimately lead to the destruction of the world and the Pasho are dedicated to gradually reintroduce it. A frightfully arrogant position when you think about it. On the surface the reader sympathize with the young man but he has good reasons to doubt himself. Not only is his attitude essentially patronizing, he has also brought change that will accelerate the change, or as some would see it loss, of his culture. It is not so straightforward a conflict as it might first appear.

The Calorie Man (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October/November 2005) is a story set in the same world as The Windup Girl. It is not surprising that Bacigalupi decided to produce more work in this future as it is a remarkably complex scenario for such a short work. Climate change, genetic engineering and peak oil play essential roles in the direction this world has taken. Without cheap oil to burn the world has reverted back to the calorie (interesting that he chose to use this outdated measurement for his story) to power the world. Agriculture is the sector that dominates the energy market and it is cornered by a few large companies. With a mixture of patented genetic material, sterile seeds and genetically engineered diseases they keep tight control over the market and essentially the complete economy. Some people are not ready to accept this corporate dominance however. In secret, scientists are working to create seeds that are both resistent to disease and capable of producing fertile crops.

It is a nightmarish scenario (one of many in this collection) but it borrows a lot from developments in agriculture in particular. Part of this story is a reference to the dubious business models of Monsanto for instance. Their combination of herbicide resistent seed stock and enforcement of their patents has frightening implications for agriculture and the environment. Forcing farmers to buy new seed stock every year and abandoning the practice of storing part of the harvest for next year's crops is probably not a particularly smart thing to do when considering food security. In some parts of the world it would even be a complete disaster. There is an environmental side to the story too. Herbicide resistant varieties make overuse of herbicides likely, threating for instance the local water supply, and there is also some concern that his genetic modifications could end up in wild populations. There is a lot going on in the agricultural industry that is reason for concern. The story is getting a bit dated however. A number of important patents held by Monsanto have expired or will expire soon. How this will affect the situation is anyone's guess.

For me, this story was the one that really got me hooked on Bacigalupi's writing. He hits on an awful lot of things that I encountered during my years in college. I do wonder how much someone without my background in environmental science will get out of it however. He presents a complex arguments with a lot of interlocking environmental problems. It's almost a literary equivalent of environmental systems analysis. There is much food for thought in this story, that is for sure. The Calorie Man is definitely the piece that had the greatest impact on me.

In The Tamarisk Hunter (High Country, June 26th 2006), Bacigalupi tackles another environmental theme: the water supply in the arid west of the US. Water rights in this region are notoriously complex in the legal sense of the world (Kim Stanley Robinson hits on this in his utopian novel Pacific Edge) but in environmental terms it is simple. There is not enough to support the entire population. In this future scenario we follow a Tamarisk hunter. A man who clears Tamarisks, an invasive species capable of taking in and evaporating huge quantities of water, for a bounty. Having seen California, with its legal and financial muscle taking away all the available water form his region, our hunter is not satisfied to support them and see the farmsteads around him empty out. To keep himself in business he reseeds the Tamarisks. A practice that is highly illegal and very risky. Sooner or later, he is bound to be caught.

I liked this story a lot, both for the theme and the plot. When I visited the region myself, I was amazed as some of the unsustainable and outright wasteful ways in which water was used in an area that is partly arid or outright desert. The struggle over water Bacigalupi describes seems almost inevitable. There is also a very nice resolution to the plot. In a way it's obvious but like the main character, I didn't see it coming.

In Pop Squad (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October/November 2006) Bacigalupi takes a different direction, although it could be argued overpopulation is an environmental theme as well. In this future, humanity has found a way to become immortal. The treatment will simply stop the aging process. To prevent a huge population book, an anti conceptive is added to the drug. The price for immortality is not having children. Some people are not willing to pay that price and procreate anyway. The Pop Squad is on the hunt for such rogue mothers. Their method of dealing with them is ruthless but despite the logic behind the ban on having children, one of their agents begins to wonder what drives these people.

There is a sharp contrast between the refined culture the agent is part of when he is off duty and the ugliness and brutality of his job. The way Bacigalupi uses this contrast will probably not be to everyone's liking. While he does work in some humanity into the story, personally I felt he is trying a little too hard to shock the reader. It is a decent story but in this company it doesn't stand out.

The Yellow Card Man (Asimov's, December 2006) is the second story set in the same future as The Windup Girl. In this story we even meet a character who will return in the novel. Bacigalupi has renamed him though. Apparently the name he chose for the character in this story is an unlikely one given his cultural background. The two short stories share a setting but are otherwise unrelated. Where The Calorie Man is set on the Mississippi river, The Yellow Card Man takes us to a future Thailand. The main characters Tranh, an ethnically Chinese man,  is trying to eke out a living there, after the shipping business he owned in Malaya was taken from him in an anti-Chinese pogrom.

The story is not so much concerned with the environmental situation in the world. Like the main character in A Pocket Full of Dharma,  situation of the main character is pretty desperate.He simply doesn't have the luxury of thinking beyond his immediate survival. Being used to a life of luxury and having people around him to do his bidding, he has fallen to the level of a beggar essentially. Hard labour is the only way in which he can make a living. His current life has made him bitter. The discrimination described in the story is absolutely dreadful, but unfortunately not unlike the things many refugees would face. I guess the opportunism, ugly as it might be, at the end of the story was to be expected.

The next story, Softer (Logorrhea, edited by John Klima, 2007), feels like the odd one out. It deals with a man who, in a moment of frustration has murdered his wife. It's a very character driven story without any obvious speculative element. Other than being pretty dark, it doesn't have much to do with the other stories in this collection. It's well written but I got the feeling it didn't quite fit with the rest.

The collection closes with Pump Six, the story that gave the collection its name and the only original it contains. Again, it's a fairly depressing future scenario. A man working on the systems that keep the city's sewage from running along the streets witnesses astounding levels of stupidity around him. The cognitive abilities of humanity seems to have decreased the the level where they can only act to have their most basic needs met. When one of the pumps he is operating breaks down, he tries to find someone who knows how to fix it and finds out the true extent of the problem.

I wonder if this is Bacigalupi commenting on a society that seems to crave  instant gratification as some put it. Society in this story appears to  have completely lost sight of long term planning. Whether or not it is, Pump Six  leaves you with the feeling that the main character is capable of a lot more than  he himself knows and that somehow he will fix things. A hopeful end to  what is a rather pessimistic set of stories.

It is not often you come across a short story collection that manages such consistency. The stories in Pump Six and Other Stories are simply excellent. Most of Bacigalupi's characters seem to feel they are small people,  powerless to change the world around them. He shows the effects of certain  global developments on the level of an individual, taking complex environmental and social problems and presenting in a way that makes the reader feel right in the middle of it. That is quite an achievement, given the fact that at present very few people seem to feel the need to take responsibility for the mess we're making of our planet and take action to try and lessen the impact. By creating so many broken worlds, it is a collection best enjoyed in several servings however. Most of the stories are very dark, showing us terrible visions of the future. I don't think I could swallow this slim volume, my edition weights inn at 239 pages, in less than a week. To make the most of this collection, these stories need to be digested before moving on. This collection is challenging and thought provoking, taking your time to read it will pay off.

Book Details
Title: Pump Six and Other Stories
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Pages: 239
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59780-133-1
First published: 2008

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