Though I have read both The Windup Girl and Pump Six and Other Stories, I’m still holding my breath on Paolo Bacigalupi. Relatively original ideas, engaging plots, vivid settings, and seemingly a strong environmental agenda to his work, there’s a lot to like. However, I find he’s unable to produce any synergy between plot and theme. The Windup Girl ending on a note that satisfies story rather than being a progressive solution to the world’s bioengineering ills, and many of the stories in Pump Six dependent on sensationalism to get their point across, I keep waiting for Bacigalupi to work thematic material into his stories with more subtlety—to present the issues he so rightly has identified in a fashion more relative to the reality he's commenting on. It was thus with expectation I pushed into his third major publication, the 2011 novella The Alchemist.
Set in an Asian-Medieval world (co-created with Tobias Buckell called the Khaim, though in fact their stories share nothing in common but a name), the main character of The Alchemist is Joez. Former trades abandoned, Joez has devoted the past fifteen years of his life to building a machine, a balanthast, that will destroy the evil bramble. Bramble the result of people’s usage of magic, its thick stalks and poisonous hairs spring up in fields and home whenever anyone uses spells and witchery. Joez himself secretly using the forbidden practice to heal his ailing daughter, the beginning of the story finds him selling her bed to get money to continue work on the balanthast. But the struggle to construct a working prototype is only the beginning. Convincing the magister of Khaim, the ruthless Scacz who beheads anyone caught using magic, that the machine is science not magic, however, may be the greater task.
Full of vibrant colors and emotionally tense scenes, The Alchemist would make a great graphic novel. Indeed, Bacigalupi tells a good story. Confirming this idea is the novella’s fairy tale underpinning. Looting the plot of Rumpelstiltskin and adding elements of Rapunzel and Snow White, Joez’s plight is rooted in the classics, and as such, makes for entertaining reading. Whether the story has further depth, however, requires examination.
Bramble not the only fairy tale element of the story, the antagonist is classic evil. Early sections of the novella develop Joez’s relationship with his daughter and the construction of the balanthast in a positive, engaging direction, but the more he interacts with governor, the more the story distances itself from reality. Evil-evil acceptable in fairy tales, space opera, epic fantasy, and the like, it doesn’t quite fit in a tale with an agenda—like The Alchemist would seem to have. Simply put, the uni-dimensional Scacz detracts from the sincerity of the issues under discussion. It’s obvious Bacigalupi has his sights set on cronyism, greed, and misappropriation in leadership, but when these are represented by a character who is larger than life, the message becomes less applicable, and in turn the integrity of the story dips. By contrast, Donna Jo Napoli’s Zel (an adaptation of a fairy tale) expands the “evil” of the antagonist to the point of sympathy.
I have read several reviews of The Alchemist stating its magic symbolizes technology, and its usage the detrimental effect technology has on the environment. That the magic used to relieve Jeoz’s daughter’s ailments in turn creates poisonous bramble would seem to support this. But then the third element is introduced: the balanthast—a piece of technology in itself. Not fitting into the simple black and white contrast of technology vs. the environment, it is a scientific, non-magical way of destroying bramble, and a factor one hopes will be reconciled in the denouement if indeed environmentalism is the theme of the day. Unfortunately, the final scenes are maudlin. Bacigalupi seems more interested in producing a dramatic ending than one which resolves the factors he has put in play—just like The Windup Girl. In other words, he can readily symbolize society’s ills in simple terms, but is unable to integrate a larger message into the story, and likewise offers no viable solution for mitigation other than a trite conclusion. Suffice to say, I expected something more progressive, but got only government=evil, and pure science=good without any way of compromising the two, the balanthast never located intra-textually.
In the end, The Alchemist is a story that starts strong, but slowly peters out into irresolution. The imagery and storytelling compelling, particularly given the fairy tale parallels, it’s an easy read. Whether Bacigalupi accomplishes anything with the ecological symbolism he appears to put in place, however, will be up to the reader. Those who have enjoyed the author’s work thus far will certainly enjoy the novella. It is an improvement on many of the short stories in Pump Six and Other Stories, and as a result may not be a bad place for the uninitiated reader to introduce themselves to the author’s work. I, however, continue to hold my breath, and will seek out Shipbreaker with at least the knowledge the story will be good.