Fantastic Reviews - Story Collection Book Review
Pump Six cover art Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi

Night Shade hardcover - 239 pages
Copyright 2008
Cover design by Claudia Noble

Book reviewed March 2008

Rating:  9/10 (Very Highly Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

          There is no shortage of talented writers in the science fiction genre today, but there are all too few who matter.  Paolo Bacigalupi writes stories that matter, stories that just may change the shape of science fiction in the 21st Century.  His writing is as stylish and entertaining as any of his contemporaries, but they also pack an emotional wallop, while forcing you to confront issues you might have been happier not thinking about.

Pump Six and Other Stories is Paolo Bacigalupi's first published book, collecting all ten of his stories to date along with the title story, a novelette original to this collection.  (One of the stories, "Small Offerings", is included only in the signed limited edition.  If your budget balks at that, you can also find "Small Offerings" in the excellent anthology Fast Forward 1.)  All of these pieces have appeared since 2003, most in Asimov's and F&SF, excepting only "Pocketful of Dharma", which was published in 1999.  In that short time, Bacigalupi's stories have already had a significant impact on the field, garnering three Hugo nominations, a Nebula nomination, and a Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award.

Most of Bacigalupi's stories are set in a future world in the grip of ecocatastrophe, forcing ordinary folks to resort to extraordinary measures to survive.  These measures are often unsettling, none more so than in "Pop Squad", whose protagonist is a real nice guy saddled with the job of using very violent means to control population after life-extending technology has become ubiquitous.

The stories in Pump Six and Other Stories are consistently powerful and intense, yet enjoyable at the same time.  If you appreciate dark humor, the original title story is particularly fun to read.  In "Pump Six", a near-future New York City is literally falling to pieces, yet the citizens are oddly unfazed by the crumbling infrastructure, lack of fresh water, rampant sterility and alarming rate of infant mutations.  Our first-person protagonist, who works in New York's fast disintegrating sewage facility, attempts to resuscitate a failed Pump Six with little help from his absurdly apathetic coworkers:

       Chee shrugged.  "I dunno.  I tried reading that manual about twenty times on the john, and it still doesn't make any sense to me.  If you weren't around, half the city would be swimming in shit right now."
       Another flasher winked on the console: amber, amber, red...It stayed red.
       "In a couple minutes they're going to be swimming in a lot worse that that.  Believe me, buddy, there's lots worse things than shit.  Mercati showed me a list once, before he retired.  All the things that run through here and the pumps are supposed to clean: polychlorinated biphenyls, bisphenyl-A, estrogen, phlalates, PCB's, heptachlor..."
       "I got a Super Clean sticker for all that stuff."  He lifted his shirt and showed me the one he had stuck to his skin, right below his rib cage.  A yellow smiley face sticker a little like the kind I used to get from my Grandpa when he was feeling generous.  It said SUPER CLEAN on the smiley's forehead.
       "You buy those?"
       "Sure.  Seven bucks for seven.  I get 'em every week.  I can drink the water straight, now.  I'd even drink out of the Hudson."  He started scratching his skull again.
"Pump Six" gives a science fictional rationale for everyone becoming so dim-witted in the future, but it also satirizes people today who cheerfully ignore our current environmental problems.  This is by far Bacigalupi's funniest tale, yet it carries as strong a message as any of his fiction, a message even more effective for being slipped in through the humor.  It should be a major contender for next year's Hugo Award for best novelette.

Even Bacigalupi's bleakest stories are entertaining, because he is so endlessly inventive and original - to me, a dismal but thought-provoking setting is a lot less depressing than a happy book chock full of familiar, hackneyed writing.  What's more, the environmental and social issues he raises come up in the framework of an engaging tale with characters you care about.  Bacigalupi is so good at putting you into the shoes of his characters that it is easy to overlook unhappy or even horrific aspects of a story as you read.  (In Bacigalupi's interview with Fantastic Reviews, he describes being alarmed by his own talent for this, when his wife sympathized with the protagonist of "Softer", a man who murders his wife in a fit of early-morning irritability.)  Because Bacigalupi is first and foremost telling a story, not delivering a lecture, one need not share his political views to enjoy his fiction.

A key to Bacigalupi's ability to place the reader firmly in the characters' viewpoint is that he always remembers something basic about human nature that many SF authors forget: people live in the world they live in.  Thus, in the outstanding novelette "The People of Sand and Slag", advanced biotech and cybernetics make it possible for the characters to survive despite the near-total devastation of the Earth's biosphere.  But they are quite content to go about their business and enjoy their video games, untroubled by the fact that they haven't seen a green plant for years, until a miraculously surviving stray dog appears as a reminder of all that society has lost.

"The People of Sand and Slag" garnered Bacigalupi the first of his three Hugo nominations.  The other two were for "The Calorie Man" and “Yellow Card Man", both of which take place in a future world suffering such severe food shortages that wealth is measured in calories, typically stored in devices called kink-springs.  The world is dependent on an American megacorp's genetically engineered grain because - rather suspiciously - plague and pestilence have wiped out all other grains.  Both stories are strong, but I particularly recommend "The Calorie Man", the powerful tale of a refugee from a devastated India, who travels the Mississippi River in pursuit of a faint hope for the future.

Not all of Bacigalupi's stories deal overtly with ecological disaster.  "The Pasho" cleverly presents a young man torn between two conflicting cultures, having been raised in one and educated in the other.  "Pocketful of Dharma" involves a conflict over the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama in a vibrantly imagined future China.  Impressively, this was Bacigalupi's first published story, long predating the controversy in 2007, when China absurdly sought to impose state regulation on the Dalai Lama's reincarnation.

Extreme social stratification is the backdrop for "The Fluted Girl", one of my personal favorites of Bacigalupi's stories (alongside "Pump Six", "The People of Sand and Slag" and "The Calorie Man" - there are so many great ones to choose from!).  Lidia, the fluted girl, and her twin sister are the most celebrated of Madame Belari's servants, chemically and surgically altered so that their very bodies are delicate and wondrous works of art.  The story demonstrates Bacigalupi's ability to write compelling female characters.  "The Fluted Girl" is the richly textured character study of a young woman who is beginning to mature, despite her master's best efforts to prevent it, deciding whether to rebel and how.

In all of his stories, Bacigalupi skillfully employs language to quickly give the reader a strong sense of his vividly imagined future worlds.  He manages this despite the fact that his tales are too tightly focused to indulge in much extraneous world-building.  Because of this restraint, his fiction is accessible to readers outside the SF/F genre.  Indeed, "The Tamarisk Hunter", in which severe water shortages have depopulated much of the Rocky Mountain region, was deliberately written for a mainstream audience.

          The short fiction market remains where most ground-breaking approaches to science fiction first appear, notwithstanding the declining readership of the major SF magazines.  Pump Six and Other Stories demonstrates that for the past five years, Paolo Bacigalupi has been one of the very best at writing short science fiction.  You should not miss this collection.
What do you think? Comments are welcome!
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Copyright 2008 Aaron Hughes

Also on Fantastic Reviews:
Fantastic Reviews interview with Paolo Bacigalupi

Back to Fantastic Reviews main page

Links to other Paolo Bacigalupi reviews, articles, and websites: - Paolo Bacigalupi's website
Monsters and Critics: book review of Pump Six and Other Stories
Strange Horizons Reviews: Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

This page was last updated - 27 December 2010