Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi

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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.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

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I had already read The Martian Chronicles as a teenager but I didn’t remember that this was such a good book. It’s often very beautiful, it’s always very melancholic, and there’s a typical, archetypal American-ness in it which I adore and admire: the hope or belief that even if you screw up everything a thousand times, you still try it once more and can still believe that this time you’re going to make it. Of course, this is a sweeping generalization (as usual), but I don’t think any other nation can boast a literature with quite the number of infinitely confident, stubborn, often aggressive, and always curious characters and heroes that you can find in American literature.

Bradbury also writes about such characters in this book, which is the chronicle of the first periods of Martian colonization. The short stories (which are sometimes not real stories per se, rather, the retelling of other writers’ stories, or short, highly atmospheric still lives) tell us about the way humans go about colonizing Mars: the first couple of expeditions end in failure; then the next one ends successfully; then the colonists need to find their place among the ruins of an alien civilization which was left behind by the natives; and then after a while humans settle down in their new empire, with more and more people arriving from Earth – and then life on Mars slowly starts to resemble life „upon the dull Earth”.

In stories like this, there’s a whole lot of sadness both on the sides of the colonizers and the ones who are being colonized. Among other things, The Martian Chronicles is good because Bradbury deals with the situation of both the colonizers and the colonized (meanwhile shamelessly and wonderfully abusing your empathy and sensitivity): in the first couple of stories, which deal with the first unsuccessful Martian expeditions, it’s obvious that he takes the sides of the Martian natives and he depicts them as „positive” characters, and I honestly wish them all the success in their attempts to save their civilization, and I wish they would be strong and resourceful enough to get rid of all those strange, loud, aggressive, ridiculously self-absorbed earthlings who happens to land on their planet.

And then, later on, I tend to side with the humans, and I admire them greatly, because they never give up, they dare to change, they dare to start off on new adventures, and they are armed with the miraculous ability that they can make a new home for themselves anywhere in the whole wide world. Obviously, that’s another question that the earthlings, intent on colonizing Mars cannot actually give up on their quest, since they managed to make such a ruin of their own planet that it’s imperative that they find a new dwelling-place instead of their old homes. And that’s also another question that the changes they make mostly relate to the surface only, and not to the core; and making a new home basically means that they force their new environment to conform to their old standards, while they don’t have the slightest inclination to adapt to their new circumstances.

Naturally, you can ponder and moralize about the way humans behave in and with their own environment, and the environment they „discover” for themselves. And there’s enough in this book to feel sad about, even though I feel that Bradbury has a basically positive opinion about humankind: it seems to me that, for Bradbury, all the pathetic failures, and the weakness, and the cruelty are somehow much less important than the human ability to try everything again. And once again.