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Pump Six and Other Stories
Paolo Bacigalupi
Night Shade Books, 256 pages

Pump Six and Other Stories
Paolo Bacigalupi
Paolo Bacigalupi's writing has appeared in High Country News,, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. It has been anthologized in various "Year's Best" collections of short science fiction and fantasy, been nominated for the Nebula and Hugo awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best SF short story of the year.

Fiction by Paolo Bacigalupi
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

Paolo Bacigalupi is a new writer who has made a profound impression on the SF field with just a few stories -- all, I believe, collected in this volume. He is generally a hard SF writer, and his central theme, by far, is the environment. In this way he differs from a writer like Greg Egan, to whom he has been compared -- Egan seems to have a wider range of SFnal interests. (But give Bacigalupi time!) That said, while the bulk of his stories are certainly set in depressing, environmentally ruined futures, they are also packed with plausible and fascinating SFnal furniture -- he's truly a science fiction writer, a pretty hard SF writer, and one who scratches the same itch John Campbell wanted his writers to scratch.

This first collection is arranged as a retrospective, that is, the stories appear in order of publication. His first sale, "Pocketful of Dharma," about the Dalai Lama being unable to reincarnate because he is imprisoned in a data cube, was colorful and different enough to make people take immediate notice when it appeared in F&SF in 1999, though it's not quite successful. It was four more years until his second story appeared, also in F&SF (where, indeed, the bulk of his stories have been published). "The Fluted Girl" has an even more exotic central image -- girls -- slaves of a rich woman -- who have had their bones altered so that they can be "played" like a flute. The real subject isn't the body manipulation, but slavery and ownership of one's own self. Again, a fascinating story, that justly got noticed, but one I didn't feel quite closed the deal.

But in 2004, with his third story, "The People of Sand and Slag," I felt Bacigalupi came into his own. It's set in a profoundly ruined future, and tells of three miners who encounter a dog -- dogs being nearly extinct in this time. What seems at first blush conventional takes a savage and believable turn that drives home Bacigalupi's point. This is still my favorite Bacigalupi story, but he has consistently been nearly as good since then. Slightly different in flavor is "The Pasho," set much farther in the future, and focussing on the conflicts between an tradition-minded old man, and his grandson, who has gone away to study to become a Pasho -- a man who understands the science that, people like his grandfather feel, led to the environmental ruin of their future. "The Calorie Man" is set in a future shaped by environmental damage and rampant corporatism, and in which much energy is generated by human effort. Corporate control of genetic modification drives an exciting thriller plot. "The Tamarisk Hunter" is an effective and bitter look at water conflicts in the fairly near future West, when California is more or less bleeding the mountain states dry, and the few who remain there eke out a living by such stratagems as accepting bounties for eradicating the stubborn, water-wasting, tamarisks. "Pop Squad" is shockingly effective, if a bit forced perhaps -- in this future most people have become immortal, and thus babies are illegal. The protagonist's job is to track down illegal mothers.

"Yellow Card Man" is set in the same future as "The Calorie Man," and displays the same cold-bloodedness that drove "The People of Sand and Slag," though from a different angle, as a failed businessman dealing with a now successful man who he had fired in his earlier career. Redemption is perhaps available -- but not easy to grasp. "Softer" is quite a departure for Bacigalupi -- straightforward contemporary horror, following a man's actions after he kills his wife. Finally, the anthology closes with a brand-new story, "Pump Six," about a man who works for the New York City sewer department. Environmental toxins have profoundly affected human development -- abetted by general societal decay -- so that nobody is educated any more, and nobody understands the infrastructure, such as the sewage pumps, that still maintain livable conditions in the big city. The story is not quite hopeful but it is in a way more pleasant than many of Bacigalupi's stories -- the hero is a basically good man, who loves his wife, and who wants to understand his job, and indeed who is a bit more capable than most anyone around him. But his efforts are almost certainly too little too late. (One more story, "Small Offerings," from the 2007 anthology Fast Forward 1, a brief, dark, story of how environmental toxins might affect childbearing, is available only in the special edition.)

Pump Six and Other Stories, with its retrospective organization and in that it features the author's entire published short fiction to date, quite strikingly positions Paolo Bacigalupi as one of the best young SF writers of our time: a writer who has already done first-rate work and who is ready, I feel sure, to really thrill us.

Copyright © 2008 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at

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