Paulo Bacigalupi is the author of the award-winning science fiction novel, The Windup Girl, and a young adult novel called Ship Breaker. I loved Ship Breaker; but I’ve tried to read The Windup Girl and found it difficult to get into. Bacigalupi introduces a very detailed alternative world that’s can be compared to the noir-dystopian-Asian-influenced world of the movie Blade Runner.
Pump Six is a collection of his short stories, published in science fiction magazines from 1999 to 2008, and many of them are set in a similar world as Windup Girl. I don’t read a lot of short stories but I thought these might be a more “accessible” way to get into the head of Bacigalupi.
I wasn’t disappointed. The stories in this book are thoughtful and disturbing and written in rich detail. Some take place in a future very close to ours, and others are wildly different. These are dark, violent stories. They brought to mind Atwood’s vision of the future or Bradbury’s. I’d describe them as science-fiction for the non-science-fiction reader, by which I mean they are about people, society, governance and society, more than technology or science.
My favorite story was called “Pop Squad” — in this story, an investigator is hunting down criminals. He breaks into a house and finds a couple of drug-addled women, who are taken away. He then encounters three young children. Rather than taking them in, he executes them. It turns out this is a world where a drug has been invented that allows people to live indefinitely in perfect health. The catch? Children aren’t allowed in a world where nobody dies; the drug is a form of birth control as well. There are a small number of women who, desperate for children, go off the drug and give up their own immortality — only society hunts them down and kills them.
What’s brilliant about the story is how complex the issues are – would we want to live forever if we could? What would that mean for our population? If having children was outlawed, would we want them more or less? Why are some people so desperate to have children? Would you give up your whole life to have a child? Bacigalupi brilliantly contrasts today’s society, which is so baby-crazy that gigantic stores full of products are designed just for babies and children, with a world where people can’t remember children and toys exist only as collectibles.
The investigator asks one of the women, “what you breeders are thinking” considering that having a child means you and your child will be hunted down like criminals. She responds, “I’ve been alive for one hundred and eighteen years and I’m thinking that it’s not just about me. I’m thinking I want a baby and I want to see what she sees today when she wakes up and what she’ll find and see that I’ve never seen before because that’s new.”
“The People of Sand and Slag” is a similar story in which humans have become nearly indestructible. Animals have been extinct for years because of their mortality, but the characters discover a surviving dog and adopt it. Only then they find it’s so weak (if it breaks a limb it doesn’t automatically repair itself) they don’t know if they want the burden of caring for it. Another disturbing story is “Pump Six,” in which the main character discovers that humanity is gradually getting stupider every year, which will ultimately lead to a breakdown of infrastructure and equipment that no one is smart enough to fix. It’s happened so subtly no one could tell.
“The Pasho” was another of my favorites, because it addressed the clash of two cultures, one focused on tradition and religion, the other focused on knowledge and change. It asks the question, at what point should a “traditional” culture adopt new ways, when those ways are based on information and can improve lives? Does adopting new ways mean the death of tradition, belief, and community? Is the integration of different cultures a bad or a good thing? When is it right for a community to fight to remain separate?
As is always true of short stories, some resonated more than others. “Tamarisk Hunter” and “Softer” weren’t as interesting to me, but overall this book was outstanding. In many ways these stories reminded me of the old “Twilight Zone” stories I read (and watched) as a child. They may not be real life, but the real-world implications hit you like a punch in the gut.