Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi


I often find it difficult to get into worlds that are not the worlds of the roughly here and roughly now – that’s why I’m not much of a sci-fi and fantasy reader. I’m always more interested in humans than in their environments, and I’m way too impatient to read world-building through many-many pages (but not knowing the rules of a given time and place drives me crazy). Anyway, Bacigalupi does a good job with world-building here because reading these stories I could usually figure out quite quickly what kind of setup we’re having here – one where Earth is already beyond redemption; one where humans (and not-fully-humans) live in a shrunken hell almost-destroyed by all kinds of environmental and economic catastrophes; one where humanity conquered death but it seems that perhaps that wasn’t such a great idea – and I was always interested to see how humans and human-like beings live in such a world.

(Still, I can never completely distance myself from the here-and-now, but I don’t mind because this led to interesting ironies and further thoughts here. For instance, one day I was reading one of Bacigalupi’s stories set in a world plagued by water shortage. Then the next day, an ominous-sounding email arrived at my work, saying that new water-filtering machines will be installed in the kitchen. The email warned everyone that on the day the old machines will be removed and the new ones installed, we might have to resort to drinking tap water. Oh the irony. Reading Bacigalupi’s story and then reading this email made me think of how very lucky we are. For multiple reasons, and the fact that we don’t yet filter and treat our water with fancy machines because we must, but just because why not is a pretty damn good reason for feeling lucky, too.)

The settings of the stories is often truly frightening, still, out of all the stories tackling moral questions (and sometimes moralizing a bit) in worlds after a great collapse, my favorites were those which I found the most character-focused. Namely, the following.

The Fluted Girl, where it took me quite long to grasp the rules of the world, but in the end this story evoked in me my favorite feeling that literature can evoke: that shivering, pure bliss, that feeling of standing on the very edge but still having a choice.

Then I liked Pop Squad, which I sometimes found a bit too moralizing, but fortunately the characters were unable to properly explain why they find their own choices morally good, or why they start questioning their choices, and this left enough space for me as a reader to think.

And finally, Pump Six. I found the world here uncannily familiar, which really did scare me: finding the almost completely rotten world of this story – a world which is barely held together anymore and which is running on the last bits of energy left over from an almost forgotten past – so very familiar, while I don’t tend to see the real world like this. This story caused in me the most uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance, which, in the case of literature, is always a great compliment.

All in all, this is a collection I enjoyed – Bacigalupi’s stories have a strong, often suffocating atmosphere, he asks interesting questions, and creates worlds I’d like to know more about. Luckily, I already learned that he also wrote novels set in one or another particular world, which means that I’ll have to look them up. I want to know more than I can learn in my sheltered life about places plagued by water shortage.