Now cheer me up again: Paolo Bacigalupi’s Pump Six and Other Stories

I discovered Paolo Bacigalupi in the bath. No, hang on! I mean I read most of these stories for the first time in the bath. They were mostly published originally in Asimov’s and F&SF, and the role of those magazines in my life is to be read in the bath. They’re the right size, and they’re cheaply and easily replaceable if I drop them (not that I ever do) and short stories are just about the right length to read before I turn into a prune. I buy them for the stories by writers I like, but I also read all the ones by people whose names I don’t know, because that has, over the years, been a reliable way for me to find new writers I’ll like. It’s not an infallible way. Some writers never write short stories, so I miss them, and others are great at short lengths but can’t write novels. But it has been a pretty good system.

I’d never heard of Paolo Bacigalupi, but I took notice of his name when I found myself repeatedly sitting in chilling water finishing his stories. Re-reading them now in this lovely collection Pump Six and Other Stories, I remember the thrill of early discovery and then the slightly cautious enthusiasm with which I met the later ones. He’s a brilliant writer. And he’s writing real SF, with real speculation and solidly good characters, set in thoroughly imagined futures. But they’re none of them happy sunny futures, and indeed while I think he’s one of the best new SF writers of the new century, I feel I have to recommend reading this on a day when you’re feeling especially cheerful.

It’s hard to summarize a collection, and I’m not going to try. When you read a whole pile of stories together though, themes do emerge that you don’t necessarily notice reading the stories separately. Bacigalupi’s futures are all pretty awful. And few of them are American. When I talked about River of Gods and Brasyl and Air as books written in English but set in the future of the wider planet, I could have put this collection right in there. The first story in the book, “Pocketful of Dharma”, is set in China, in a city that has a new organically growing city towering over it, and it’s about a beggar boy in the old city. This is the kind of future Bacigalupi gives us. In other stories we have other future China, future Indias, and they feel solidly authentic. (I gather Bacigalupi has worked in China and his wife is Indian, so he’s writing from real cultural understanding.) In other stories here we so have several iterations of the US—we have a US suffering from a terrible water shortage, and an Indian immigrant in a US in a world dominated by a genetically engineered monoculture grain, and a US where everyone is a moron. (That story, “Pump Six”, is chilling and brilliant and was one of my Hugo nominations.) And there are the stories that could be anywhere like the most chilling story of all “The Fluted Girl” and “The People of Sand and Slag” where people have been engineered to heal instantly and regrow limbs and eat slag and live in a state of constant war and then they find a dog. (Eat your heart out Harlan Ellison.)

They’re all excellent stories, and important stories, and anyone who’s interested in where SF is right now should probably read them. But I suggest you read them one at a time, and perhaps in the bath with plenty of hot water, lest the effect of reading the whole thing at once drive you to chocolate.

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