Cannonball Read V: Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi
In this collection we find both "The Yellow Card Man" (nominated for a Hugo Award) and "The Calorie Man" (Winner of a Sturgeon Award), both of them in the same fictional universe as The Wind Up Girl. The stories explored in the collections all have some common denominators, and an element of man versus the world is present in many of the texts. This is a common enough phenomenon in much high ranking modern science fiction and it is done with great skill by Bacigalupi. If you have read a lot of science fiction, you will probably recognize a few of the base themes here. Ecological disasters, capital interest ahead of the greater good, dehumanization and so on, but I find the perspectives to be refreshing in this collection. The use of personal narratives is very efficiently used to convey the experience of the brave new worlds explored, without ever leading us into the trap of over explaining the settings. Bacigalupi tentatively explores his worlds, through characters that seldom take the role of "reporter from the future". This is something some readers of science fiction loves, and some are not found of, I find myself in the first category, mainly because I feel it creates a more believable narrative in most stories. One of the stories in the text is not in the science fiction genre; "Softer" is a dark little tale, about a life changing event, typical of the classical short story, though with an unusual point of view, and an unusual conclusion.
So, onwards to characters. Most of the protagonists are male, but there are some female ones as well, yey diversity! Most of the protagonists are not in a position of power; many are counted amongst the lowest class of citizens in their societies. From the "water tics" in a future US with serious water shortages, to the "yellow card" refugees, fleeing after a failed Chinese expansion southeastwards. This puts the protagonists at the mercy of the systems they live within, and it gives the author the opportunities to explore the consequences of a world where human life often is a common commodity, while resources are scarce. There is a global perspective in the collection, we get stories from both the west and the east, and the world described in each story is quite recognizable as the world we know, in a not so distant future.
There are some variations between the individual short stories, in two of them, "The Fluted Girl" and "Pasho," I'm reminded of dark fairytales, something I have sometimes come across in science fiction before. The stories are still classical short stories, in terms of form, and to some extent style, but the settings, and conflicts within each text are reminiscent of fairytales.
All the stories in this collection are structured close to the classic ideal of the short story, there is a limited number of characters, the timespan of the stories is quite short, and many of them involves moments of change and/or some form of enlightenment for the characters. One notable exception is "The people of Sand and Slag", in which the reader is expecting some form of dramatic turnaround, and is left intentionally bereft. That story and "Pop Squad" is probably the most gut-wrenching of the lot of them. If I have to take rate the stories I would say that "Yellow Card Man" and "Pop Squad" ranks among my favorites. I did not love "Softer", mainly because the story seems more of an afterthought, not in tune with the collection as a whole, and actually "Pump Six", because it might be a little too ambitious for its short form.
It I were to say something about a common theme to these stories, I would be forced to move toward a common joke in literary circuits; the stories are about the "human experience" (all literature can, at some level, be said to be about the "human experience"), but this is what is explored here. The characters we meet are painfully human, with all its consequences. Human adaptation keeps coming up as a central theme as well, and the question of whether human adaptation really is such a good thing is very present, although never answered.
To sum up, I would say this is a highly relevant and interesting collection. It will probably not make you happy, but it will make you think, and it will affect you. The language is solid, but it is never unnecessarily embellished, it is quite accessible and always appropriate for the story told. The dystopian aspects will be familiar to all who read a bit of science fiction, but there is still something new and fresh about the narratives presented in Pump Six and Other Stories.
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