Paolo Bacigalupi burst onto the scene in a big way with his excellent SF novel The Windup Girl, which rightfully won both glowing reviews and major awards, and followed it up with a great YA novel, Ship Breaker. Both books are set in near-future dystopian settings in which the ruined environment plays a big role. Given all of this, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that Paolo Bacigalupi’s first collection of short stories, Pump Six and Other Stories, is 1) also excellent and 2) continues the thematic thread from his first two novels.
Many of these stories work from the same starting point as the two novels: humanity is attempting to extract beauty, or at least a semblance of normal life, from the wreckage they created when forcibly turning the environment, their society, or both (as the two are inextricably connected in these stories) into something it was never meant to be. Meanwhile, the people who are directly or indirectly responsible for the chaos are either trying to leverage more gains from the destruction or trying to come to terms with what they’ve created.
In short, these are mostly environment-focused dystopias, but like all great science fiction writers, Paolo Bacigalupi is more concerned with the human impact of the scientific changes (be they sociological, environmental, political,…) he uses as starting points for his stories than with the hard science behind them. The end result is an incredibly strong but quite dark collection of short science fiction stories spanning the author’s career. It’s also interesting that, because the stories are arranged in the order in which they were published, you can actually see Paolo Bacigalupi become a better writer from story to story.
In the first two stories, “Pocketful of Dharma” and “The Fluted Girl”, his style is still a bit hesitant and uneven, but that’s easily balanced by the stories’ concepts and surprise twists, which completely took me by surprise. Especially “The Fluted Girl” has a huge “reveal” that absolutely floored me.
In “The People of Sand and Slag”, the Earth is ruined and humans have become indestructible, genetically engineered monsters. The story describes the reaction of a group of security guards when they find an actual living creature — a dog, no less. This is science fiction with such a powerful psychological wallop that it has the same impact as horror.
“The Pasho” compares the power of knowledge to the power of physical strength, as it describes the return of a young man to his desert tribe. The man, now a “pasho” dedicated to preserving knowledge, quickly discovers he has become a stranger in his former home. This story, together with a few others in this collection, has a sufficiently interesting setting that it would be wonderful to see it developed into a full-length work in the future.
Not coincidentally, two of the stories in this collection (“The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man”), were actually the starting point for Paolo Bacigalupi’s celebrated debut novel The Windup Girl. They’re set in the same fictional universe, and one of them can actually be read as the start of the story arc of one of its characters. Both are excellent and highly recommended to readers who enjoyed The Windup Girl.
Between those two stories, you’ll find “The Tamarisk Hunter”, a frighteningly realistic look at a near-future Colorado in the grip of a long-term draught, and “Pop Squad”, which is easily the best story in the collection and one of the most memorable SF stories I’ve ever read. It’s so tightly written, with such a horrid opening and such a stunning climax, that it affected me almost physically. Looking around on Bacigalupi’s blog, I discovered that he used mannerisms from his own son to describe the children in the story, which adds a whole new layer of psychological horror to the story. Simply unforgettable.
The collection closes out strongly with “Softer”, a terrifying look into the strangely calm mind of a murderer, and “Pump Six”, about a devolved future version of humanity that has forgotten how to manage even their most basic necessities.
Pump Six and Other Stories is a stunningly good collection of short fiction by an author who’s fast on his way to becoming one of the premier names in SF. Highly recommended.