30 January 2008

Locus Magazine's Gary K. Wolfe reviews Paolo Bacigalupi

from Locus Magazine, January 2008

Pump Six and Other Stories, Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books 978-1-59780-133-1, $24.95, 248 pages, hc) February 2008.

Science fiction dealing with environmental disasters has tended to fall into two fairly simple categories: stories in which it simply isn't our fault (an asteroid strike, a solar storm) and cautionary tales in which catastrophe becomes an instrument of policy critique (as in Kim Stanley Robinson's recent Washington trilogy, or many nuclear war fictions). With only a handful of stories published since mid-2003, Paolo Bacigalupi has emerged as one of the most distinctive new voices to consistently address this theme, as well as one of the most honored — eight "year's best" appearances, one Nebula and three Hugo nominations, two Sturgeon nominations (and one win), an Asimov's award. None of this is surprising given the consistent quality of Bacigalupi's fiction — his direct and precise prose, his carefully worked-out futures, his convincingly if sometimes perversely flawed characters — but it may be a bit surprising that an author with such a consistently bleak vision has earned such popularity. Reading his first collection Pump Six and Other Stories can be a fairly bracing experience: slavery, torture, cannibalism, posthumans engineered to eat industrial slag and mine tailings, cops shooting babies, other babies born monstrous in a hopelessly toxic environment, post-petroleum societies in which multinational corporations cynically control the food supply, sewage systems collapsing because the technology to maintain them has been lost — and not an ingenious technofix or Heinleinian competent engineer in sight. In environmental terms, Bacigalupi is to Al Gore as Savonarola was to the Pope: human behavior, in his view, is not a matter of rationality but of expediency. We'll always take the easiest route, he seems to say, and try to patch things later. His stories take place in these patches.

And yet if Bacigalupi challenges SF's traditional valorization of reason, he's very much an SF writer in the particulars. One can hear echoes of everyone from Harlan Ellison to David Bunch, Geoff Ryman, and even H.G. Wells here — there are shadows of Morlocks and Eloi all over — but Bacigalupi is mostly the spiritual heir of C.M. Kornbluth, one of the few classic-age SF writers with a similarly grim and mordant view of human nature. The Kornbluthian tone is most distinctive in the one new story in the collection, "Pump Six", in which a sewage engineer in a stinky, deteriorating New York plagued by energy and food shortages and nearly overrun with homeless near-subhuman "trogs" discovers that his dimwitted assistant has permitted sewage to back up overnight due to the failure of the Pump Six of the title. Upon investigating he learns that the century-old pumps are all badly in need of replacement parts and beginning to fail, but that the parts manufacturer is long out of business. Naively hoping to track down an engineer, he makes his way to Columbia University, where in the long-deserted library an aging faculty wife tells him that engineering, and pretty much all other aspects of higher education, had been abandoned decades earlier. If you can imagine "The Marching Morons" without the comic-satirical edge, you begin to get a sense of the darkness of this tale (which also contains a brief dream passage that echoes Judith Merril's "That Only a Mother").

But Bacigalupi is only getting started. In "The People of Sand and Slag", even the cities appear to be gone; the tale takes place in what appears to be an endless Samuel Beckett-like wasteland of strip mines and industrial slag, with the posthumans who inhabit it modified to survive by ingesting this sludge. Miraculously, they come upon an unmodified dog somehow surviving in this toxic environment, and make a half-hearted effort to keep it as a kind of pet, until the inconvenience of providing it with purified water and food becomes impractical. The echo here, both in terms of the setting and the story's rather inevitable ending, may be Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog", but with one crucial difference: the wasteland is not the product of a single massive catastrophe like a nuclear war, but rather of deliberate human action, possibly over centuries, with humans simply modifying themselves to survive in it. Adaptability is also a theme in "Pop Squad", set in a massive arcology called a "carbon sequestration project" in which the bourgeois classes enjoy immortality treatments and symphony concerts while the cops track down and shoot the few remaining illegal children raised in secret squalor by their defiant moms. This sort of brutal decadence is taken even further in "The Fluted Girl" — the story that first brought Bacigalupi to wide attention — in which a wealthy patron seeking social status enslaves a pair of sisters and, through painful surgeries and medical treatments, transforms them into fragile human musical instruments. One such slave who rebelled turns out to be on that evening's dinner menu.

Bacigalupi's two most famous stories both take place in a common future, but in very different settings. In "The Calorie Man" and "Yellow Card Man", oil-based energy is a distant memory, replaced by elaborate wind-up mechanisms and an energy economy based on calories generated through agriculture. "The Calorie Man" begins in what appears to be a bucolic future Mississippi River valley, but soon we learn that powerful corporations have not only monopolized most agriculture through patented crops (whose seeds are also sterile, forcing consumers to continually buy from the corporations), but possibly engineered plagues and rusts to destroy competing crops. The fairly slight plot involves a scheme to rescue a renegade genetic engineer who has plans to be a future Johnny Appleseed by releasing his own modified strains to undercut the monopoly. "Yellow Card Man" doesn't have much of a plot either, but is a powerful tale of a once-successful ethnic Chinese trying to find work as a displaced person in a future Bangkok while being tormented by a former employee who has risen to prosperity. If the direct ecological theme has shifted toward the background here, the story brilliantly shows the human consequences of population shifts as a result of economic change, and is perhaps Bacigalupi's most successful tale purely as character drama. Its only real rival in that regard is "The Pasho", set in a distant future reduced largely to barbaric tribes, in which a young man from one such tribe returns home after learning to be a "pasho," a kind of monk devoted to the gradual rediscovery of knowledge — only to find that his warlord grandfather regards him as a traitor to the principles of his culture.

The most direct ecological fable in the collection is "The Tamarisk Hunter", which interestingly is also the only one not published in an SF venue (it appeared in the ecology newspaper High Country News, for which Bacigalupi writes). It's an extremely timely tale of future water wars in the west, with communities systematically being shut down to enable California to continue importing mountain water, and "water bounties" offered to freelancers such as the title character, who tracks down salt-binding tamarisk trees to improve the water supply. Although it may be the most immediate of his tales, it characteristically offers little hope that anything will be done before these water wars become a reality. The remaining stories are Bacigalupi's first publication, "Pocketful of Dharma", set in a future Chengdu in which a beggar comes into possession of a data cube containing the Dalai Lama, and "Softer", which at first seems to be an uncharacteristic tale of a man who more or less inadvertently murders his wife — until we realize that, in miniature, it's an echo of the expediency and thoughtlessness that characterizes Bacigalupi's portrayal of human nature throughout: at a certain point while playfully pretending to smother his wife with a pillow, the protagonist realizes it's just as easy to go ahead with it, rather than deal with recriminations. As Bacigalupi points out throughout this powerful and important collection, it's just as easy to murder the world, too, once you've gotten started.

Read more! This is one of over two dozen reviews from the January 2008 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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