Discussed in this essay:
Pump Six and Other Stories, Paolo Bacigalupi. Night Shade Books. $24.95. 248 pp.
Ecology and science fiction have grown up together. In 1926, Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories magazine and gave the world the first periodical completely devoted to what Gernsback called “scientifiction.” Stories containing some element of scientific extrapolation had existed at least since the Enlightenment, but Gernsback’s feat was to initiate the systems of publication, distribution, and reception that would lead, over the next few decades, to the birth and flowering of science fiction as a distinct idiom of popular literature.
In 1927, Charles S. Elton published Animal Ecology, a book that gave to the nascent field of ecology ideas and terminology that continue to be essential today. Though the word ecology had been coined in the 19th century, and studies of plant ecology in particular preceded it, Elton’s work led directly to studies of ecological niches, population dynamics, and ecosystems that would provide us with clearer views than were ever before available of the human impact on the natural world.
It is exactly that human impact that is the primary concern of most of the stories collected in Paolo Bacigalupi’s first book, Pump Six, which offers some of the most vivid and harrowing portraits of ecological apocalypse ever written within the science fiction field.
Despite the two fields solidifying their foundations at parallel times, science fiction and ecology remained separate for decades. Stories that take ecological ideas into account, whether to create believable alien worlds or to suggest the effects of human action on terrestrial environments, didn’t become common until the 1950s. With the rise of the modern environmental movement, though, came many science fiction stories about ecological catastrophe, and from the end of the 1960s through much of the 1970s, speculative horror stories about overpopulation and pollution were written by many of the best (and worst) SF writers of the time.
Paolo Bacigalupi’s stories echo and build upon the work of writers who came before him, and in some ways they feel like an extension of the better ecological science fiction of the 1970s; the imagined ecocatastrophes of that era lost some of their power through reiteration, and growing interest in genetic engineering and nanotechnology led to many stories of technological triumph over the nonhuman world (and nonhuman worlds). In Bacigalupi’s futures, whatever solution technology offers creates its own problems, and technological innovation is often a tool of the rich to shore up their defenses against the huddled masses yearning to breathe.
The tales in Pump Six are arranged in the order of their first publication, which is not the strongest presentation for them, but it allows us to see Bacigalupi’s growth as a writer. His first story, “Pocketful of Dharma,” appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1999; his second, “The Fluted Girl,” appeared there in 2003, garnered Bacigalupi a tremendous amount of attention from critics and readers, and was reprinted in more “best of the year” anthologies than any other story that year. From then on, Bacigalupi published two or three stories annually, many of them reprinted in anthologies and nominated for awards.
“Pocketful of Dharma” and “The Fluted Girl” are the weakest tales in Pump Six, which is not to say that they are bad, but that they are more awkward and less precise than the later stories. Right from the beginning, though, Bacigalupi’s signature themes are present. “Pocketful of Dharma” tells the story of a beggar boy in a future Chengdu who gains possession of a computer cube containing the uploaded consciousness of the Dalai Lama. The story’s strengths lie not in its plot, which isn’t particularly convincing or suspenseful, but in its setting. This vision of Chengdu contains many of the trappings of Blade Runner and Neuromancer—worlds of dirt and decadence—but Bacigalupi offers a few details that are original and striking, a tendency that will only grow stronger in later stories. His empathy for characters who have been marginalized by their society is also apparent here, though it manifests itself more sentimentally than in the better of the later stories.
“The Fluted Girl” is a notable step forward after “Pocketful of Dharma,” because though Bacigalupi hadn’t yet developed the astute sense of pacing that would serve him so well in later stories, the details he used to evoke a milieu are often striking. “The Fluted Girl” seems at first to be a fantasy story set in some sort of feudal society, but we discover that the feudalism is extrapolated from tendencies of our own time: this is a world in which celebrity culture and unbridled capitalism have produced fiefdoms. The central image of a girl who has been turned into an art project and a valuable commodity by the rich Madame Belari propels the story into the realm of allegory, making it a cautionary tale about the human costs paid for the luxuries of the leisure classes.
Despite the attention lavished on “The Fluted Girl” within the science fiction community, it was with his third story, “The People of Sand and Slag,” that Bacigalupi came into his own as a writer. Plot is less important in this story than the earlier two, and that is to the story’s benefit, because the machineries of plot would only distract us with the grinding of their gears. Bacigalupi is at his best when he uses a simple story as a foundation for his imaginings, and the story in “The People of Sand and Slag” is one of the simplest in the book: some people discover a dog living in a place where it shouldn’t be living, they take care of it for a while, but they don’t realize how difficult it can be to take care of a pet. The dog dies, the people continue their lives. End of story.
Or, rather, end of plot. Here’s what matters: the people are post-humans, their genes altered to survive in a world of extreme pollution, a world where the land is a giant tailings pile and the oceans have turned to sludge. The dog is a “real” dog, which is to say a dog like the dogs we know, a relic of a lost world. “Must be a bummer to wake up and find out you’re at the end of your evolutionary curve,” one of the more-than-human people says. They bring in a biologist to help them figure out what to feed the poor creature. The biologist marvels at the dog, takes a sample of its DNA, and then has no more use for it: “A live one is hardly worth keeping around,” he says. “Very expensive to maintain, you know. Manufacturing a basic organism’s food is quite complex. Clean rooms, air filters, special lights. Re-creating the web of life isn’t easy. Far more simple to release oneself from it completely than to attempt to re-create it.”
“The People of Sand and Slag” could be read, and was probably intended, as a story of ecological horror, but it avoids didacticism by showing characters who are perfectly comfortable and happy in their world and who would not want to return to the fragile past that produced the dog. The tone is darkly funny:
When the Sun started to set, Jaak lit the ocean on fire with his 101. We all sat and watched as the Sun’s great red ball sank through veils of smoke, its light shading deeper crimson with every minute. Waves rushed flaming onto the beach. Jaak got out his harmonica and played while Lisa and I made love on the sand.
The tone and vision of this story is similar to the tone and vision of a neglected master of science fiction, David R. Bunch, whose stories of Moderan presented a future where “new-metal men” waged war as a strategy against boredom and looked with pity and scorn on the delicate, mortal people of flesh. Bacigalupi lacks Bunch’s linguistic originality, and he undercuts most of his bitter ironies with a faith in humanity that seldom appeared in Bunch’s work—Bunch realized that a faith in humanity belongs only in futures less bleak. His indulgence in such faith makes Bacigalupi a somewhat lesser artist, perhaps, but a far more appealing writer, one who has a hope Bunch never had of reaching a large audience.
When he is at his best, Bacigalupi’s faith in humanity is touching rather than forced. At the end of “The People of Sand and Slag” the dog dies, which, given the circumstances, is hardly surprising. The complexity of emotions that the ending provides its characters is artful, though, because Bacigalupi is smart enough to avoid a trite conclusion in which the dog’s death teaches everyone to value all that has been lost. Mostly, they’re relieved they don’t have to care for such a fragile creature anymore, although the narrator does admit that sometimes he misses it.
All of Bacigalupi’s stories after “The People of Sand and Slag” are assured and skillful, and a few of them are masterpieces. Ecological concerns dominate all of the stories except the fourth, “The Pasho” and the ninth, “Softer.” The book’s chronological organization does a disservice to these stories, because were they grouped with each other and with “The Fluted Girl,” a particular resonance would emanate from their thematic harmonies. “The Pasho” is an evocative tale of cultural assimilation and influence, and though its central advocate for the preservation of cultural uniqueness is a caricature of a bitter old man, the story overcomes this handicap by keeping the main character from easy moral evaluation by having him commit a pragmatic murder. The protagonist of “Softer” also commits a murder, though at the beginning of the story and for no particular reason: While playing around, he put a pillow over his wife’s face and didn’t bother to take it off until she was dead. The story opens with him sitting in a bathtub with her corpse.
“Softer” is not a science fiction story—it’s a story of psychological horror set in the present—but it is an excellent foil for the others in the book, a story that shows that ordinary, ostensibly “normal” people are fully capable of committing the most horrible offenses against each other for no particularly compelling reason. It’s a nihilistic story, in a way, because it denies that human nature is either good or comprehensible, a denial that is absent from most of the other stories here. (Perhaps it is this lack of goodness and motivation that has allowed the ghastly futures in the rest of the book to come to be.) Or, rather, it shows a man who is capable of recognizing the evil he commits, but incapable of stopping himself from committing it:
He couldn’t stand to see the hurt and horror in her gray eyes when he lifted the pillow, the rancid version of himself that he knew he’d find reflected there, so he threw all his weight onto her struggling body and jammed the pillow hard over her face and rode her down to Hell.
Thus, a story set in the present causes Bacigalupi to create his most repulsive main character. The futures of dirt and rot that fill his other stories mitigate the sometimes objectionable actions of their characters, distancing them from us in a way that a story set in the present doesn’t allow. The world of “Softer” is that of ordinary middle-class American excess, ostensibly sane and circumspect, not the sort of world in which people should behave like beasts. And yet people behave like beasts.
Though it is markedly different from the other stories in its setting, “Softer” is similar in demonstrating one of Bacigalupi’s worst writerly tics: a short (often one-sentence) final paragraph that ties everything together while hinting at what the main character has learned or what might be up next for them. The technique is a common one in short stories throughout the ages, a quieter version of the O. Henry trick ending, but there is a whiff of disingenousness in its neatness. It’s the sort of ending you can read without having read any other part of the story and yet still hear its tone perfectly, and when almost all of the stories in a collection end with such a tone, it becomes a gratingly familiar note.
Such endings have been common to science fiction since the days of Gernsback, at least, but it is frustrating to see a writer of Bacigalupi’s skill indulge in them so frequently. This tendency is part of a larger element of his work, though, and one that is also common to the majority of science fiction short stories: a similarity of form bred by an addiction to narrative symmetry and an aversion to ambiguity. (The most visible attempts to break the monotony of form in SF occurred during the 1960s with various types of “New Wave” writing. The formal effects of such writing were not particularly influential within the mainstream of science fiction, where the strongest legacy of the New Wave(s) has been in terms of content and tone.) What I am here calling a fault is generally seen as a virtue by many readers and critics who are fond of “well-made stories,” but I think Bacigalupi’s best work shows us why the structure of most popular fiction is something that keeps it from attaining heights of artistry otherwise available to the most original writers, because it is in his best work that the tension between the conventional moves and the visionary moments is most apparent.
The best story in Pump Six, and one of the best science fiction stories of the past decade, is “Yellow Card Man,” the tale of an old man who has lost everything in a world of scarcity and sacrifice. It is an excellent piece to compare with “Pocketful of Dharma,” because the two stories have similar settings and characters. By the time he wrote “Yellow Card Man,” Bacigalupi had evolved as a writer, gaining an impressive ability to pack meaning and implication into his sentences. He had learned that his settings could be as evocative and fascinating as any character, and he turned the plot machines on low to keep distractions to a minimum. The first half of “Yellow Card Man” almost achieves a Chekhovian structure, one in which landscapes and characters intermingle without forced effects. Both stories are packed with incidents, but the difference between “Pocketful of Dharma” and “Yellow Card Man” is that the latter story, rather than forcing all the incidents into a formula of contrived causal relationships, allows a few of the incidents to build accumulative meaning from each other. The second half loses some of the resonance—the story doesn’t dare relinquish the cheap and easy thrill of a neat ending—but this is a bearable flaw in a work of such imaginative power.
“Yellow Card Man” is set in the same future as Bacigalupi’s earlier “The Calorie Man,” a future of resource scarcity and government by multinational corporation. “The Calorie Man” tells the tale of a smuggler in an America where the patents on agricultural genes are protected like the greatest of state secrets. It’s a tremendously entertaining and well-crafted story, but some of its effect is trivialized by being about a quest to rescue The One Man Who Can Save The World when a simpler story about ordinary life in such a world would have been more plausible and affecting. “Yellow Card Man” moves the action to Bangkok and dispenses with adventures in favor of glimpses into the lives of different classes of people. (Science fiction struggles to overcome its origins as a literature about The Greatest Men in the Universe, though, and even in “Yellow Card Man” the protagonist was once among the elite.) Both stories present their worlds vividly and thoughtfully, both are carefully crafted and perfectly paced, but “Yellow Card Man” is ultimately more assured and less gimmicky—”The Calorie Man” seems to work a bit too hard to make sure we get the message, while “Yellow Card Man” is more comfortable allowing the situations and characters to imply meanings rather than demand them. Bacigalupi’s greatest strength is his eye for detail, and the details in “Yellow Card Man” are unsurpassed in Pump Six. Here, for a sample, are some paragraphs from the beginning of the story:
Bicycles and their ringing bells flow past like schools of carp, commuters already on their way to work. Behind him the high-rise looms, forty stories of heat and vines and mold. A vertical ruin of broken windows and pillaged apartments. A remnant glory from the old energy Expansion now become a heated tropic coffin without air conditioning or electricity to protect it from the glaze of the equatorial sun. Bangkok keeps its refugees in the pale blue sky, and wishes they would stay there. And yet he has emerged alive; despite the Dung Lord, despite the white shirts, despite old age, he has once again clawed his way down from the heavens.
Tranh straightens. Men stir woks of noodles and pull steamers of baozi from their bamboo rounds. Gray high-protein U-Tex rice gruel fills the air with the scents of rotting fish and fatty acid oils. Tranhs stomach knots with hunger and a pasty saliva coats his mouth, all that his dehydrated body can summon at the scent of food. Devil cats swirl around the vendors legs like sharks, hoping for morsels to drop, hoping for theft opportunities. Their shimmering chameleon-like forms flit and flicker, showing calico and Siamese and orange tabby markings before fading against the backdrop of concrete and crowding hungry people that they brush against. The woks burn hard and bright with green-tinged methane, giving off new scents as rice noodles splash into hot oil. Tranh forces himself to turn away.
As the titles show, these are stories about men; with the exception of “The Fluted Girl,” that’s the case with every story here. Women live in the backgrounds of these tales, sometimes nobly and sometimes viciously, but more often than not they are caretakers, victims, and simpletons. The futures in these stories are patriarchal and completely heterosexual, making them dystopian for reasons other than just ecological destruction.
Pump Six ends with the title story, the only one original to the book, and one of the strongest. The narrator is a man in charge of keeping the pumps working in the sewers of a future Manhattan that has been so plagued by pollution that few people are able to think very coherently; anyone with the money to do so spends as much time as possible in drugged oblivion, and a new species of feral, dog-like people are the results of most pregnancies. No one possesses the knowledge of how to manufacture anything anymore, and it is purely because the pumps were well built originally that the city has not been overrun with poisonous sewage. But then a pump fails.
“Pump Six” is the most overtly satirical story in the book, and elements of it will remind readers of Huxley’s Brave New World and C.M. Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons,” though Bacigalupi does not blame the idiocy of his future Americans on the overfertility of the wrong sorts of people, as Kornbluth’s paean to the lost hopes of eugenics does. It is also the story that is most reminiscent of George Saunders, a writer with whom Bacigalupi has much in common, though Saunders is a more overt satirist and Bacigalupi has more of an idealist’s tendency to undercut his nightmare visions with an almost Dickensian sentimentality. For instance, one of the striking elements of “Pump Six” is its concern with childbearing—the “trogs” who have been born to unknown parents wander through the city like lost pets, happily congregating in parks for endless rounds of sex, while uptown at Columbia University the students are doing the same thing, since none of them can read or do much else. Despite seeing all this, the narrator still hopes to have children with his girlfriend, though she is obviously incapable of taking care of anyone, including herself (at the beginning of the story, she tries to find a gas leak with a lit match). Bringing children into such a world may be an act of selfish cruelty; nonetheless, the characters decide to be optimistic. Their forced optimism may seem touching at first, a tribute to the indomitable spirit of humanity, but such optimism is at best delusional and at worst—when it leads people to want to welcome children into such a cesspool of a world—psychotic.
The optimism that appears in the conclusions of Bacigalupi’s most horrifying stories is, at least if read without irony, similarly forced and unconvincing, but it is not grating in the way that some other types of sentimentality are, because the futures imagined throughout Pump Six are so harrowing and atrocious that the kinds of progress and hope the characters are pushed toward is not the progress and hope of a world where everything is wonderful and everyone is happy, but a world where basic survival is a triumph.
Though the triumph of basic survival is celebrated in these stories, beneath the surface disturbing questions murmur. If this is the future of humanity, is the future of humanity something to be desired? Is the choice we face the choice suggested by “The People of Sand and Slag”—between people and the web of life? Is procreation selfish and cruel? Is there an inherent value to the world as we know it, or are we as deluded about our circumstances as the characters in “Pump Six”?
Each reader will respond with a somewhat different answer, because though part of what these stories do is make us wonder how probable their visions of the future are, that is a minor and superficial element. What makes the best of these stories remarkable and important—despite (or perhaps because of) whatever flaws they may possess—is their resistance to any one reading. Traditional science fiction may suffer an aversion to ambiguity, but the stories in Pump Six, traditional as they are, have a complex relationship to this aversion, displaying it in the symmetry of their structure, but assuaging it by doing what science fiction does best: proposing worlds of what-if that are meaningless unless the reader participates in the extrapolation, thinking about how to get there from here, and what getting there might suggest about who we are, individually and as a species. What leads to Bacigalupi’s futures is relatively clear (resource depletion, economic monocultures, general selfishness, lack of foresight), but what it means to arrive there is not. At their core, these stories are about human empathy and its limits, with ecological catastrophes providing the opportunity to vividly test those limits, both emotionally and philosophically.
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction with a wide variety of venues, including One Story, Locus, Rain Taxi, and Web Conjunctions. He is a regular columnist for the online magazine Strange Horizons and the series editor for Best American Fantasy (Prime Books). He also runs the literary weblog The Mumpsimus.
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