Pump Six and Other Stories
by Paolo Bacigalupi
Cover Artist: Claudia Noble
Review by Andrew Brooks
Night Shade Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781597801331
Date: 01 February 2008 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Links: Author's Website / Interview: Paolo Bacigalupi / Review: Pump Six (story) / Excerpt from Pump Six (story) / Show Official Info /
The stories are arranged by order of publication with "Pocketful of Dharma" being the first. It's about a young beggar who, through a series of events, gains possession of a data-cube containing the uploaded consciousness of the Dalai Lama. Different groups are hunting for the cube, some with the intention of taking the cube for their own profits and some who believe the Dalai Lama won't be reincarnated as long as he's stuck inside. It's an entertaining story, but the real standout here is the setting. Chengdu is a place that's familiar to science fiction readers, a far-future where technology is utilized by the elite whom live high above while the rest wallow in dingy slums. But Bacigalupi's detail pushes it beyond being just another hard SF set piece. It's a short story so he doesn't spend a lot of time world-building, but the place is a living breathing character by the end.
But while Bacigalupi is a great world-builder he's not limited to that. "The People of Sand and Slag" is Bacigalupi's third published story and the setting is a world horribly polluted and pretty near unlivable for organic organisms. Here, the setting doesn't outshine the plot. Man has been altered to adapt in order to survive, and Bacigalupi provides an insightful look into how the physical changes have also affected the way in which he thinks. The premise is that three miners find a living, breathing dog and have no idea how to react to it. The characters are seemingly content that they live in the kind of world that they do, and become annoyed at times that the dog isn't as resistant to the environment as they are. The ending fits and makes sense in that Bacigalupi's characters, in all his stories, are products of their environment.
A story where Bacigalupi puts the two, characterization and setting, together and makes it really sparkle is "Yellow Card Man"--a tale about an old man who used to be big in the world but now is small. It's a bleak one, there's no doubt about that, but the main character's search for redemption is captivating. And again the setting here is very much alive and a part of the characters' motivation and behavior. Bacigalupi makes this cohesion look so easy and effortless. It really is the best story in a collection full of great ones.
The one story that doesn't really seem to fit in this collection, the one that contains no science fiction elements at all, is "Softer". It's a horror story about a man who kills his wife for no particular reason and then takes a bath with her, musing about what his life will be like now. Although it's done very well and I did enjoy it, I wondered about it's inclusion at first. But when I thought back on the other stories, with their ecologically horrific settings, it made perfect sense. "Softer" is set in the present, so Bacigalupi didn't have to come up with a physical environment to place his characters in, but the setting, the world the reader gets a peak at, is the killer's mind. The scary thing is how sane the main character's musings seem, as he sits in the tub across from his dead wife. In that way where the story takes place is just as dark as the futures presented in the other stories. The others all contain science fiction elements, but they could be viewed as horror stories as well.
A great story makes you think. What would I do in this situation? What effect would this have on me? You incorporate yourself into the story, you think and you wonder long after you've put the book down. Paolo Bacigalupi writes stories that do that and is, in my mind, proving himself to be one of the best new writers in science fiction today. I don't like it when critics take one writer and compare him to another author in a different genre, but I'll do it anyways. Style-wise, Bacigalupi reminds me a lot of Cormac McCarthy. His words are precise, and his prose lean and clean. As well, there's an underlying rhythm, a beat that's playing as you read.
I look forward to the next book or short story from Paolo Bacigalupi and can't recommend this collection enough. As dark as his stories are, the guy's got a seriously bright future ahead as a writer.