It’s not always easy to read, Pump Six and Other Stories (2008) by Paolo Bacigalupi is a ferocious collection of impressive SF. The ten stories on display here are dark, rich, probing, and wildly imaginative. His visions of the future may be cynical and grim, but they also ask the difficult questions, sometimes the most difficult ones. Science fiction needs this, and Bacigalupi delivers it with consistent power.
The collection contains two impressive precursor stories to Bacigalupi’s debut novel The Windup Girl (“The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man”), and it’s easy to see why this milieu was targeted for further exploration. They’re hard-hitting, powerful, and thoughtful works that suggest the unsustainability of contemporary ways. Cautionary themes continue throughout the volume, most notably in the brutal “The People of Sand and Slag,” which depicts a fascinatingly alien posthuman viewpoint, a harrowing vision of humanity lost. “The Fluted Girl” is a haunting tale of a future dominated by media fiefdoms, and a slave girl cruelly modified to be an instrument of her master’s attention-hungry empire. These stories, as well as others (the early work “Pocketful of Dharma,” and the excellent environmental tale “The Tamarisk Hunter”) seem to focus on individuals caught in the gears of heartless world machinery, exerting what small measure of control they can to resist inexorable systems.
I think my favorite piece here is “The Pasho,” which spins a deeply imagined scenario based on the culture clash between reason and tradition. It’s an effective extended metaphor and, while no less probing, is one of the more hopeful messages on display. By contrast there’s “Pop Squad,” a vicious examination of altered morals in a future where life extension has rendered humankind immortal, but also cruelly intolerant of those who choose to secretly breed. Dazzling science fictionally, “Pop Squad” is also frank, in-your-face, and thoroughly discomfiting stuff.
The collection winds down a bit weakly, in my estimation, its two final stories interesting but kind of hard to like. “Softer,” the only non-SF story in the collection, starts with an “accidental” murder and spins into dark mental spaces as the protagonist finds himself rejecting the status quos of day-to-day life in America. It’s like a grizzly, contemporary episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (for a more permissive pay-cable channel, perhaps!). The title story, “Pump Six,” is an inventive, cynical exercise in devolving human intelligence, and what happens when our hedonisitic laziness gradually leads to societal entropy. How long will our clever systems sustain us, when we’re no longer capable of understanding them? “Pump Six” asks this important question, but lacks structural finesse, and the message is a bit on the crass side.
Pump Six is full of thought-provoking, creative, and probing material, though, and well worth reading. You may not like the answers, but you have to respect the power of the questions. It’s easy to see why Bacigalupi has developed such a following; consider me among them.