Pump Six and Other Stories: A stunningly good collection

SFF book reviews Paolo Bacigalupi Pump Six and Other StoriesPump Six and Other Stories Paolo BacigalupiPump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi

In Pump Six and Other Stories, which won the Locus Award for Best Collection, Paolo Bacigalupi treats us to these ten excellently written biopunk stories:

“Pocketful of Dharma” (1999) — a young street urchin finds a digital storage device which contains some startling data. This is Bacigalupi’s first short story — and it’s impressive. I love the premise of this story and its ambiguous ending. It would be fun to see Bacigalupi extend this one into a novel.

“The Fluted Girl” (2003) — a young girl is at the mercy of her cruel and ambitious mistress. There’s a scene in this story that’s eerie, chilling, and strangely beautiful. Another ambiguous but satisfying ending.

“The People of Sand and Slag” (2004, Nebula nomination, Hugo nomination) — three colleagues are surprised to find an extinct species: a dog. Although this one was nominated for a Nebula and Hugo and has some fascinating ideas, it lacks Bacigalupi’s usual subtlety and feels a bit heavy-handed.

“The Pasho” (2004) — an educated and enlightened man returns to his primitive village. This one has a surprise ending that was really well done.

“The Calorie Man” (2005, Theodore Sturgeon Award, Hugo nomination) — set in Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup world (the setting for his multi-award winning novel The Windup Girl), generipping and bioterrorism have destroyed the world’s food supply, leaving an oligopoly of a few biotech firms. It took me a while to get the feel for this blighted world, partly because I was listening on audio and couldn’t see the words (e.g., At first I didn’t realize it was “joules” and not “jewels”). Once I read a couple of pages of the print version at Nightshade’s website, I was fine and loved it. This is excellent world building.

“The Tamarisk Hunter” (2006) — during Big Daddy Drought in Colorado, Lolo has found a way to make sure he keeps his job. This is the weakest story. It’s well-written, but lacks the superior qualities of the other stories.

“Pop Squad” (2006) — death has been conquered, human evolution is over, and breeding is now illegal. This story is incredibly disturbing, but wonderfully thought-provoking. The craftsmanship — the symbolism, the imagery, and the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness, evolution and decay, and life and death — is sublime.

“Yellow Card Man” (2006, Hugo nomination) — a once-proud Chinese shipping magnate who now lives on the streets of Bangkok finds that “fate has a way of balancing itself.” Another Windup world tale, this one had me riveted. I must read that book!

“Softer” (2007) — a man who just killed his wife experiences the world differently in his last days of freedom. Ironically, this is the only story which isn’t set in a hellish dystopia, but it’s the most disturbing of all. I actually had to fast forward through some of the tracks. Perhaps what was scariest is that the murderer’s thoughts made complete sense to me!

“Pump Six” (2008, Locus Award) — Travis, who works for the sewage plant, keeps the toilets running. This is another especially well-crafted piece which is slightly humorous, has an amazing stream-of-consciousness scene that comes across great in audio, and has a slow, chilling, inconspicuous reveal.

I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version of Pump Six and Other Stories, read by James Chen, Jonathan Davis, and Eileen Stevens. Chen was a perfect pick for the Windup stories and Jonathan Davis, a favorite of mine, had some glorious moments (though he had a tendency to suddenly and inexplicably affect a bad Southern accent occasionally).

Every single one of these stories is disturbing, but they’re also excellently written and unforgettable. Bleak, pessimistic dystopian literature isn’t usually my thing, but Paolo Bacigalupi’s stories make great reading due to their superior construction, moody immersive atmospheres, tantalizingly provocative ideas, and sometimes-subtle warnings. Everything Paolo Bacigalupi writes goes on my TBR list.

~Kat Hooper

Pump Six and Other Stories Paolo BacigalupiPaolo 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.

~Stefan Raets

Pump Six and Other Stories — (2008) Publisher: Paolo Bacigalupi’s debut collection demonstrates the power and reach of the science fiction short story. Social criticism, political parable, and environmental advocacy lie at the center of Paolo’s work. Each of the stories herein is at once a warning, and a celebration of the tragic comedy of the human experience. The eleven stories in Pump Six represent the best of Paolo’s work, including the Hugo nominee “Yellow Card Man,” the nebula and Hugo nominated story “The People of Sand and Slag,” and the Sturgeon Award-winning story “The Calorie Man.”

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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One comment

  1. I was surprised I liked this collection so much. As you know, I hate messages, but these stories were really excellent. Even the one I couldn’t actually finish!

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