Pump Six and Other Stories is a selection of short stories written between 1999 and 2008 from the up and coming Paolo Bacigalupi. Published before the overwhelming success of his first novel, 2009’s The Windup Girl, the collection features a variety of mostly original bio- and cyberpunk stories, a handful nominated for awards. Lacking the polished technique of many of these sub-genre’s great stylists and too often depending on shock value, the following is a brief rundown of the ten stories in the collection.
“Pocketful of Dharma” (1999) – This is the story of beggar boy Wang Jun in near-future Chengdu, China. After a run in with a gang of thugs, Wang comes into the possession of an object that could make him rich or kill him in the offing. Highly reminiscent of a Gibson novel (without the style), this story is a solid, but unspectacular opener to the collection.
“The Fluted Girl” (2003) – A girl named Lydia attempts to remain hidden in the castle of her patron, Baleri, who has biologically modified her and her twin sister. A creepy story of the potential for bioengineering with a macabre, Gothic twist (reminiscent of Jeff Vandermeer’s Veniss Underground), it gets a bit sensationalist toward the end, but is overall a well-developed story. Tim Burton would love it.
“The People of Sand and Slag” (2004) – Security people at an isolated mine in Montana hunt a bio-creature on the loose. Humanity having mastered the arts of healing and regeneration until injury and loss of limb mean nothing, the hunt does not go as any in the 20th century would. Though unforgivably gruesome toward the ending (sex during amputation, c’mon), the tale remains relevant for its questions regarding the sacredness of the corporeal.
"The Pasho" (2004) – A man returns to his home in the Afghan-esque desert—a city destroyed by war—to meet his family after years away in a foreign culture. More an examination of traditions rather than story, Bacigalupi inspects the ideologies underpinning cultural clashes, war, and the desire for higher quality of life. Though the ending seems to contradict content, it is still one of the better stories in the collection.
"The Calorie Man" (2005) – A first look at the ideas that would underpin The Windup Girl, on the surface this is the rescue story of a geneticist. But a little deeper it becomes an examination of genetically modified crops and its big business backing. Featuring kink springs, gene rippers, megadonts, spring guns, SoyPro, genehack weevil, AgriGen, and so many other ideas from Bacigalupi’s first novel, this story (and “Yellow Card Man”) would be a great curiosity-satisfier for those wondering if The Windup Girl is worth a read, or just those seeking more in that novel’s world.
"The Tamarisk Hunter" (2006) – Due to its greed for water, the tamarisk is considered a nuisance in the water-starved Colorado River basin of the future. Destroying it provides Lolo, and his camel Maggie, a means to a living (“$2.88 a day, plus water bounty”). The wild west in water-deprived circumstances, the story becomes a very personal examination of a potential future for America’s dry areas.
"Pop Squad" (2006) – This story is overpopulation to the extreme, yet described from a very domestic, very personal perspective. Sensationalism balanced with introspection, the story’s moral trigger is over-indulgent—reflection upon it at times even more tedious.
"Yellow Card Man" (2006) – Tranh, a man whose riches and family were taken in a political purge in Malaysia, now lives hand to mouth on the streets of near-future Bangkok. Another story in the setting of The Windup Girl, life is not easy for Chinese refugees like Tranh—a deeper sense of depravity always just one step away. This is the best story in the collection.
"Softer" (2007) – Character study of a killer in a far less sublime version of Camus’ The Stranger. Bacigalupi experiments with form to little success.
"Pump Six" (2008) – New York is an over-populated city filled with: normal people, hairy mutant humans (“trogs”), and an upper class, all experiencing a degeneration of intelligence. This is an ambitious story that fails to deliver, capping the collection in poor style. The less said about this story, the better.
In the end, Pump Six and Other Stories is an average collection of shorts from early in a sci-fi writer’s career. All the stories are structured well and indicate a degree of focus and time spent on revision. However, the numerous sensationalist elements detract from the integrity, and the overly-descriptive nature of the prose is a problem. But overall the writing is motivated with a sense of purpose. The collection (as with The Windup Girl) shows a sensitivity to contemporary concerns—predominantly of the environmental nature—that many writers today make little contact with. Biopunk, cyberpunk, and just plain science fiction filling the pages, readers of Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Ian McDonald and the other authors with a social, technological, and environmental agenda may want to have a read. Bacigalupi shows great promise, let’s hope he fulfills it.