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thoughts without borders

Pump Six by Paolo Bacigalupi

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Paolo Bacigalupi is best known for his 2009 Hugo and Nebula Award winning novel, The Windup Girl, a story set in a near-future, post-peak oil, environmentally-catastrophic Bangkok. But before he’d written his highly praised long-form fiction, Bacigalupi came onto the scene with hard-hitting short stories. The 2008 collection, Pump Six, brings many of them together in one place.

Paolo and his work are followed closely within the science fiction community, and for good reason; in addition to the awards listed above, he’s won the John W. Campbell Award and the Locus Award, among others. His name is known outside of the genre world as well; mainstream news outlets, such as the Guardian, praised The Windup Girl to the hilt, TIME magazine included it in their 2009 year-end “Top Ten of Everything” list, and environmental outlets interviewed him asking for his thoughts on the future.

Just as the early science fiction writers of the 1960s were influenced by the space race and the cyberpunk movement of the 80s expressed concern over the coming technological revolution, Bacigalupi, often categorized as “biopunk”, asks us to think about our current environmental uncertainty.

In an interview with Orbit books, when asked about the near-future worlds he creates, where resources are scarce and the environment bleak, Bacigalupi said, “It feels like we’re on the cusp of a series of major shifts in the way our world works, whether that’s a loss of cheap and easily portable energy or global warming, and that raises a lot of question marks about what our future will really look like. . . .  I don’t really see major trend lines pushing us in some other, more positive or sustainable direction, so it feels untruthful to me, if I write about anything other than depleted and broken futures.”

On where he finds his material, in an interview with the environmental site Grist, Paolo discussed the important role environmental journalists play in his work: “what they report provides almost perfect fodder for stories, mostly because they can only take the stories so far. Environmental journalists point the way toward saying, ‘The world is changing.’ What I can do with science fiction, then, is say, ‘Well, let’s see how that looks.’”

Instead of categorizing his stories as dystopic, he prefers to call them, if need be, “fear fantasies” or “if this goes on” stories.

Today, most people pay little attention when an obscure creature in the rain forest lands on the endangered species list but what would happen if in the future one of our most common animals, the dog, a household pet, ceased to exist? This is the set up in the Hugo and Nebula nominated story “People of Sand and Slag”. Set in the not-so-distant future, a small group of miners, maintained in their toxic environment by the medical innovation “weeviltech,” which allows them to eat anything and heal quickly, come across what must be the last surviving dog. The dog, its species having thought to have been killed off generations ago, has not adapted to the new surrounding and acts as a reminder of what life was once like. The group isn’t accustomed to, and feels pity for, its fragility and specialized needs: actual food, clean water, and time to mend from injuries. In the end they must make a choice, do they keep the animal alive, care for it regardless of the expense and inconvenience, or do they kill it and free themselves from the hassle created by this seemingly lesser being?

“People of Sand and Slag” reflects Paolo’s thoughts on technology and human advancement. Sure, we can create comforts in the future but will we be moral, will we live noble lives? “That’s what the story is really about. Yes, we can have all the technology in the world and still make some really, really bad decisions. We can create a hell where nothing is left alive except for us, but where we can be very comfortable, because we’ll accept whatever we have to in order to meet our immediate desires. Ultimately, the characters are given a choice between preserving something that’s natural versus their entertainment and expediency, and they naturally choose entertainment and expediency first. And we do that every day,” he told Locus magazine.

Similarly, “The Tamarisk Hunter,” a story inspired by reports of Colorado’s Glen Canyon Dam’s decreasing water level, asks what humans would do if they were faced with a long-lasting, devastating drought: would we help or destroy each other?

The one original story in the collection, “Pump Six,” is named after the sewage pump that facilitates the Upper West Side of Manhattan, roughly Columbia University and the surrounding neighborhood. “Pump Six” begins with indications that things are not quite right. The protagonist’s wife is checking the oven for a gas leak with a lighter, they’re having trouble conceiving, bacon is scarce, and there are degenerative “mash-faced monkey people” known as trogs squatting in Central Park, sleeping in alleyways, and copulating on streets in broad daylight. Even those who are supposedly normal human beings are behaving oddly: miscarriages and illiteracy are on the rise while trog-like tendencies become more widespread as IQ points drop.

Soon the failing sewage system, one-hundred years on since its last inspection and now with the manufacturer out of business, is releasing toxins into the city’s water supply. What happens when infrastructure fails and there’s no one to fix it? A chilling thought for all those dependent on public utilities.

Many reviews of The Windup Girl make reference to William Gibson, the man who coined the term “cyberpunk”. Pump Six opens with “Pocket Full of Dharma,” one of the more tech-infused stories in the collection. In it we follow Wang Jun, a street kid whose livelihood depends on clandestine errands and theft. After a failed attempt to rob a tourist, Jun is witness to a murder and tasked, by the killers, with delivering a data cube. After the hand-off goes awry, curiosity gets the better of him and he hacks into the mysterious object. In it he finds the Dalai Lama’s consciousness. “Pocketful of Dharma” is a subtle story about geopolitics in the future and one that most echos the work of the now-classic author Bacigalupi’s often compared to.

It’s worth noting that two stories in the collection, “The Calorie Man” and “The Yellow Card Man,” are considered prequels to The Windup Girl. If you’re curious about his longer work you have a preview, or, if you enjoyed the full-length novel, there’s more.

The stories Bacigalupi writes have an ambitious agenda: they’re looking to overthrow our modern day mythologies—the adventure and exploration stories that tell us we can become rich and successful. Instead, when Paolo writes he’s “wondering about the creation of another set of myths and models, where we start to get excited about the possibility of being a sustainable species rather than a rapacious species.”

Bacigalupi is roundly praised for his worldbuilding and Pump Six is evidence of his ability to place the reader inside the dark crevices of the cities he creates. While reading you can feel the grime that coats the walls, see the smog that blankets the horizon, and imagine your chemistry changing in some sort of Darwinian response. Motivated by fear of what we might become, Bacigalupi creates decayed worlds so palpable it makes utter devastation seem as if it’s knocking on our door—as if in 10 years we’ll all wake up short of breathe and unrecognizable as the humans we are today.

::[Links]::
Buy Pump Six at IndieBound
Paolo Bacigalupi’s website
Interview on io9’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy
Interview with Grist
Interview with TIME’s Techland
Excerpts from interview with Locus Magazine (2007)
Interview with SF Signal
Interview with Rain Taxi
Interview with Orbit books Part I
Interview with Orbit books Part II

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Written by Gabrielle

November 15, 2011 at 6:02 am

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