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.

Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides

freshComplaintI once wrote about one of Eugenides’ novels that he’s so good that I’d happily read even his shopping lists. It’s possible I’ll still feel this way about his novels (but there’ll probably be a ten-year gap between two novels again, so I’m not holding my breath), but based on just these short stories, I’m quite content without having access to Eugenides’ shopping list.

These stories are not bad, far from it.

They’re just…

First of all: Fresh Complaint?

When I first noticed, sometime last year, that this book was coming out, my first thought was: “Great! New short stories!” Well – they’re not new. There’s a couple of new(ish) stories here but most of them come from earlier stages of Eugenides’ career and it seems that most (or perhaps all) of them had already been published earlier. Sure, I don’t mind that they’re collected here, after all, I don’t have a subscription and access to 20 years’ worth of back issues of the New Yorker and other magazines, so for me it’s much simpler to read them in this collection, but still – they’re not new.

Also, these stories provide insight into the development of Eugenides’ themes throughout the years, and it’s interesting to see how certain characters and themes that were later developed into full-fledged novels originally started out in short story form. For example, the protagonist of one story is the very same Mitchell who’ll one day become one of the main characters in The Marriage Plot. And there’s another story that features a sexologist researching transgender issues – for a feature-length take on this theme, see Middlesex.

Yes, all this is interesting. Really. In a way. But I always get suspicious when I have to keep convincing myself that something is interesting, so let’s move on to my second concern with these stories.

Which is that I think Eugenides is a novelist, not a short story writer. I’m not saying that the longer the better, I happen to like his shortest novel the best, but Eugenides is definitely not a master of spare, succinct, bare-boned storytelling – he’s not one to create a whole world in ten pages. I feel that in his case, it’s much better when he wanders through decades and continents, and goes deep into everything, and to me it doesn’t even matter whether he’s going deep into the habits and aspirations of an idealist arts student; or into the mind of a young man who suffers from bipolar disorder; or into an inexplicably melancholy atmosphere through 250 pages – the result is always much better, more beautiful, more intimate than what he achieves in a 15-page story, where there’s only enough space to lay down the facts but no time to get into the feelings.

Reading these stories, I often felt that Eugenides didn’t go close enough, deep enough. These stories are not heartless, shabbily put together, worthless or dull – but there’s a great distance-keeping and impersonal quality to them. They’re like the echoes of stories I had heard before – distant, quiet, lacking real power. And unlike his novels, I don’t think I’ll remember his stories for long.

The Best American Short Stories 2017 by Meg Wolitzer (ed.)

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I could easily cut and paste this text from the posts I wrote about the anthologies of the previous years but I’m too lazy to go back to my earlier posts. Still, this is probably going to be very similar to those because – as I came to realize since 2011, when I first started to read this series – this anthology is basically the same every single year.

The ingredients include:

– 1 story written in the second person singular (whether or not the second person singular makes sense there)
– 2-3 somewhat historical, somewhat political stories
– 1-1 story written by a black, Asian American, Latin American or Native American writer or about black, Asian American, Latin American or Native American characters (in a single year, only two out of the four minorities must make an appearance, but sometimes as many as three are included)
– 2 lyrical, experimental short stories (in which sometimes no meaning whatsoever can be found)
– 3-4 stories by well-established, successful author (it’s a well-known fact that in the whole wide country of the United States, only about 20 persons can write decent short stories, so there’s obviously not a whole lot of possibilities to choose from)
– 1-2 stories by writers who never before had anything published
– 4-5 stories about family matters, turning points in relationships, and crises of self-realization (that is: normal, average human stuff; and I usually like these stories)

Of course, one story can possibly fit into more categories. It’s possible for an Asian American writer who never had anything published before to write something experimental, or a well-established author may write something historical in the second person singular. Therefore, the collection is not that boring and predictable, and the quality of the stories is usually very high – the writers featured here can indeed write stories that are really stories and not political, philosophical, existentialist or feminist treaties, even when the topic is political, philosophical and so on.

But it’s not that thrilling and surprising, either, after several years (and I wouldn’t call myself a jaded reader who cannot be pleased anymore), even though this year’s guest editor, Meg Wolitzer says in her introduction that she likes being surprised by a story (I like that, too), and that she thinks these here are surprising stories (I don’t think so).

As roughly 19 out of the 20 stories fall into one or more of the categories outlined above, there’s not much space left for the truly surprising, and I rarely cried out in my mind that “oh wow, this here’s so exquisite and precise and beautiful, and I’ve never seen it expressed like this before, and how is it even possible for someone to write in such an awesome way”. This year no single story made me feel like this on the whole. I felt it sometimes, coming across certain sentences or even paragraphs, and that pleased me, sure (and then I tried to examine why those sentences and paragraphs were so good, but fortunately this mostly resists scientific examinations), but this is not enough. I want the complete story to enchant me. Perhaps next year.