Underground Reading: Pump Six by Paolo Bacigalupi

Pumpsixweb2 Pump Six (2008) is a collection of eleven short stories from the award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi. Mr Bacigalupi's particular method of storytelling fits neatly within the short story format, making this an impressive volume of his work.

For the most part, Mr Bacigalupi is telling tales about resource deprivation. Imagine a possible world (generally Earth) in which we've run out of x (x = calories, water, space, whatever). What are the reprecussions of this state on the social order? Who wins? Who loses? How do they feel? The stories almost invariably feature proletariat-class protagonists and their struggles. No one extraordinary, just people trying to struggle through both their generically awful lives and whatever awful thing is thrown at them by the author.

In stories like "The Tamarisk Hunter", "The People of Sand and Slag" and "Pop Squad", we can appreciate the plodding hero, but largely these are tales about the world they live in - essentially parables about how we'd evolve if we ran out of water, food or space. When read in the same book, these stories feel a little same-y - a sort of Wayne Barlowe's Guide to Our Shitty Future. I'm aware that this criticism is completely unfair - these stories weren't written to be read in this fashion, an inescapable problem with single-author short story collections.

It is with stories like the titular "Pump Six" and the amazing "Yellow Card Man" that Mr Bacigalupi really shines. In both cases, the hero is someone extraordinary. Or, at least, just extraordinary enough. Whereas the other stories conclude with a dawning realization of the awfulness of their world, these stories begin with that assumption. In "Yellow Card Man", our protagonist is a man that was - once - on top of the world. Now he's struggling to find scraps to eat, but still trying to maintain his last few standards of dignity. "Pump Six" features, essentially, the last intelligent man in the world - and, frankly, he ain't all that bright. He's just clever enough to realize that his society is built on a ticking time-bomb. But not smart enough to solve it. Eek.

As someone that grew up with boxes of flea-market-bought issues of Isaac Asimov's and Analog, I found Pump Six almost reassuringly familiar. Or is that reassuringly disturbing, given its content? These are short stories that outline a future, introduce a protagonist and, if there's space enough, give the reader a nifty little mini-quest with a twist ending. Short stories aren't meant for "epic" - these are meant to introduce personal perspectives and person-sized resolutions. Mr Bacigalpi's work in this space ranks up there with some of the best in my memory. His writing is cheated by being collected - these excel as individual tales, and, read together, can be taken for granted.

Format: Digital
Tube journeys: Part of a plane flight 

We also reviewed Mr Bacigalupi's young adult work, Ship Breaker, earlier this year.