Pump six and other stories (Paolo Bacigalupi, 2010)

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Pump six and other stories, by Paolo Bacigalupi (2010).

Score: Excellent.

When I finished The windup girl I wasn’t especially enthusiastic about it, though in hindsight I think it’s one of the best books I read last year, so I decided to pick this up for more biopunk shenaningans.

The stories are arranged by publishing date so it’s easy to see how Bacigalupi’s writing evolves and what changes is mostly the focus. Every story shows concern for a world in which science is rarely in the right hands, and progress usually means a greater gap between the richest and the dirt-poor. The future is not going to be bright, but poorer and dirtier, and we can do awesome things thanks to science, but most of the time it’s just a weapon of oppression. Even there, you can always see a haunting dash of transhumanism, especially in the first few stories, while in the last few not even science can do anything about what we’ve done to ourselves. The stories are written quite cleverly, starting in the middle of the situation and throwing subtle hints at what’s really going on until the reveal, which can be quite a bit into the story. It’s quite soft science fiction, falling hard into dystopia territory on its more outlandish settings.

A pocketful of Dharma was not a dashing start but I was genuinely surprised by the reveal and in general was interesting and well-executed. Could be developed into a short novel, and its world was rich.

The fluted girl was probably my favourite. It had a melancholic quality about it and explored the limits and implications of bodily modifications, which are clearly frowned upon but still hint at transhumanist themes. The state of medicine in that universe is such that wonderful things could be done, if it were not in the hands of the cruel powers-that-be, who only care about their whims and entertainment.

The people of sand and slag was quite chilling and the heaviest-laden with transhumanistic themes. Lisa says that their ancestors, us, would call them gods. We would call them monsters, of course. But if you look at it in a positivistic way, they really would be gods… And at the same time we don’t want to be them, that’s a barrier we’re not ready to cross. Also, a world without animals would be lonely as fuck. And we would end up alone for being so fucking selfish.

I quite enjoyed The Pasho because it brought me warm and fond memories of A canticle for Leibowitz. The characters and conflict were quite cleverly outlined and developed, and it also throws in a message that we could very well remember when reading the other stories: science doesn’t understand nationalities, races, sexes or social classes.

Both The calorie man and Yellow card man take place in the same universe as The windup girl but they don’t overlap at all, which would have been a very big temptation. Being able to ground their roots on the full-length novel, they’re both very solid and enjoyable, and still hopeful: the situation is bad, we live in much worse conditions than a few generations back, but we can still fight the powerful and regain our dignity.

The tamarisk hunter continues the same themes of scarcity and inequity and it was interesting to see a take on a different topic, such as draught and climatic change.

Pop squad was a disturbing mirror to look into. I don’t like kids, I don’t want any and the story didn’t make me change my mind, but it was still interesting to see myself reflected in such a distorted and monstrous way. That’s the magic of dystopia, folks: take one respectable life choice, enforce it on the whole population with some police brutality and you got yourself a nice, fat one.

I was quite let down by Softer, because it’s the odd-one-out. I was all the time wondering when the reveal would be. Maybe she’s a robot. Or he’s a robot. They live in a police state and something weird is going to happen. But no. Not very interesting, even with no fantastic element.

Pump six is a quite traumatizing turn. This time the future is dirty, poisoned and depressing, but there are no fantastic scientific advances to even it out and say: ‘aaaah… this world sucks but at least I’m living in a cyberpunk and Google Glasses are a dime a dozen!’. No. People are dumb, and getting dumber and dumber, and the world is falling apart because people are almost literally too dumb to be alive. No obvious progress anywhere else. No conspiracy, no still-smart elites still running everything. Just plain, old idiocy. And still it ends on an optimistic note ***SPOILERS***with the main character sitting down to read a book to try and fix the pump.

I quite disliked Small offerings basically because the plot is not only far too outlandish, it’s quite surely an Idiot Plot: ***SPOILERS*** even if pregnancy was the only way to cleanse a woman’s body, which is already nonsensical enough, if you know how to modify the fetus to absorb all the crap, you know a way to use stem cells to just generate a lump of meat that will perform the same function. Even if you didn’t care about the ethical implications of doing that to a fetus, it would still save you time and money, and you gain nothing by doing it the way that’s described. It’s just absurdly and dumbly evil. Unless the treatments don’t actually work, and people are incredibly superstitious and sacrifice fetuses to a cruel god of toxins and chemical crap in our food but it doesn’t make a difference, and I don’t think that’s even implied in the text. Also, I know it’s for dramatic purposes but up to this point I was kind of sick of Bacigalupi blaming every single evil of the world to “chemicals”. What are “chemicals”? Serotonin and endorphin are chemicals too and we need them to live, thank you.

The Gambler was a clean and sober ending that I really appreciated after the excesses of the last few stories. Environmental topics appear again, with a refreshing dash of internet era media, quite enjoyable.

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