Review: Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi

The titular story in this collection follows a maintenance engineer for New York’s sewer system as he comes to term with how much the world around him is deteriorating. As with many of the stories in this collection, the outlook isn’t 100% gloomy. The idea that some people would continue to be reliable as the infrastructure of civilization crumbles is quite uplifting. I chose a book at random and started reading. I read that as a rallying cry for the coming generations that may need to remember the importance of knowledge.

All but one of the stories in this collection are science fiction. They take place in a future where various things have gone very wrong. These futures are easily extrapolated from the current issues humanity is dealing with. The outlook is grim but the characters that guide us through these stories remind us that certain positive aspects of humanity will continue to exist in even the darkest times.

The first story in the collection, “Pocketful of Dharma” was written much earlier than the others and in many ways is the most optimistic future. It’s a grimy cyberpunk future, but biological architecture and other technological advances are a stark contrast to the deterioration present in the rest of the stories. The question of reincarnation and religion in general in a society that can upload consciousness to a computer is one I always find interesting and is explored well here.

The Fluted Girl from 2003 was collected into both The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror and The Year’s Best Science Fiction. Any story with casual cannibalism and child pornography will never be classified as a pleasant read, but it is unquestionably powerful and disturbingly beautiful. As a critique on the economics of fame, it’s scalding. You can read this story online at the author’s website

On one hand, “The People of Sand and Slag” is a posthuman military science fiction vignette with a dismemberment fetish. On the other hand it’s a tearjerker of a story about learning to love a pet dog. That’s the story in a nutshell, but it references some tech that might tie it into the setting of Windup Girl, Bacigalupi’s first novel. And because of those references I’m very intrigued to know when this story supposedly takes place in relation to events in Windup Girl. You can read this story online at the author’s website.

For me, “The Pasho” had echos of Dune. War and religion and juxtaposition of technology and subsistence living weave a rich tapestry on which themes of knowledge preservation and revenge are displayed. I love the concept of expanding the brain’s memory capacity by inscribing simple memory aids as tattoos.

The Calorie Man and The Yellow Card Man explore 2 very different fringes of society in the post oil dystopic setting of The Windup Girl. The central issues of each story Intellectual Property and Unemployment respectively, are quite relevant today. Wrapping these issues into life and death narratives adds considerable perspective to the discussion. I highly recommend tracking these stories down either in this collection or in a year’s best anthology if you enjoy The Windup Girl.

The “Tamarisk Hunter” is a great companion piece to the under-appreciated movie Sleep Dealer. At one point in history, if you lived within walking distance of a water source you could survive, even if you had to carry that water to your fields by hand. When all of the water gets shunted to the economic centers, the underprivileged can be denied access to this renewable natural resource. This hefty issue seen through the eyes of a morally flexible homesteader makes for quite a good story. You can read this story online at the author’s website.

“Pop Squad” is probably the most difficult story in the collection to read. Much like the recent Repo Men movie, the shiny promises of the future often come with distasteful repercussions. The shiny future in this case involves immortality and the repercussion involves the associated need for population control. I’m struck whenever I read a story about immortality of its inevitable echos into the health care debate.

“Softer” is the lone non-speculative story in the mix, but it’s quite strong as a crime short story. It’s something I’d expect to hear on CrimeWav. The developing delusion of the protagonist and his clear joy as his connections to society and responsibilities dissolve is deliciously creepy.

As always with Night Shade Books, I’m quite impressed with the look and feel of this small hardcover collection. It’s impressive how many of these stories were nominated for awards and/or collected in year’s best anthologies. Even more impressive is how well they each stand up when collected together. In my opinion there are no duds. At the moment, The Fluted Girl and The Pasho stand out in my mind the most, but that’s been shifting constantly as I think back over the stories.


I’d very much appreciate your comments on the Paolo Bacigalupi TagShadow. Reviewing this collection offered considerable input and thus is one of the more developed TagShadows.

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~ by mentatjack on March 20, 2010.

One Response to “Review: Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi”

  1. […] loved Bacigalupi’s short story collection Pump Six and Other Stories ( my review ). Two of the stories were explicitly set in the same universe as The Windup Girl. “The […]

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