“Pump Six and Other Stories” by Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books, 2008)

The stories collected here are in chronological order (of publication that is, as far as composition order, I don't know) and one of the many pleasures of reading these ten pieces is experiencing Bacigalupi's artistry grow year by year from 1999's "A Pocketful of Dharma" (itself already masterful) to the volume's titular piece in 2008.  (There's an eleventh story, "Small Offerings" available only in the limited edition, for which I didn't spring.)

This is SF unabashedly, and it's well-written. This is the kind of book you pass to a literate but SF-disdaining friend secure in the knowledge that you are about to gain a convert. Instead, the friend will reward your kindness by blithely explaining the Bacigalupi isn't really skiffy at all, "because he's a good writer." Then you pull your hair out.

Sadly, you must admit your friend has a point, (okay, call it half a point). Because, really, how often do we come across sentences as precise and evocative as the following in our digests? Not often enough:

"Methane lamps burned like blue fairies behind the closed glass of the neighbor's droplet-spattered windows. Rain sheeted off their roofs, drumming wet into the empty alley. A cheshire was yowling for a mate somewhere in the wet, barely audible under the thrum of falling water." — (from "The Calorie M" pg 97.)

Never often enough. "Cheshire" is the right word; "sheeted" is the right word. "Thrum" is. (By the way there's a school of thought that says comparing lamp flame to blue fairies in la littérature fantastique may confuse the reader's apparently addled brain over what's simile or metaphor and what's literal. Were you confused above? I didn't think so. In fact, if you're like me you've never seen gas lamps or torrential downpours clearer.)


"Men squat on tea stools and watch the day's swelter build as they smoke tiny rolled cigarettes of scavenged gold leaf tobacco and share them from lip to lip. Women converse in knots, nervously fingering yellow cards as they wait for white shirts to appear and stamp their renewals." — (from "Yellow Card Man" pg 165. )

There are so many right words in those sentences one savors the moments spent unpacking the riches. (The women aren't literally conversing inside knots, Mr. Card.)

Present tense is used so clumsily so often that I consider it guilty until demonstrated otherwise, but Bacigalupi's use never intrudes. He understands the difference between present action, and past, and of states of being, which is not so obvious to every writer who favor present tense for "immediacy." Where Bacigalupi writes (the bolding is mine):

"I close the fridge and straighten. There's something here in the mess and the screaming in the next room and the reek of the one kid's poopy pants, but I'm stumped as to what it is. They could have lived up in the light and air. Instead, they hid in the dark under wet jungle canopy and turned pale and gave up their lives.

The kids race back in […]" — (from "Pop Squad" pg 139.)

… a less astute, less particular, writer might have let the present tense slosh over every verb in the passage as if all events should be grasped simultaneously in some Dr. Manhattan-like omni-perception.

Then there is the matter of endings, which Bacigalupi makes look easy. Not a single final sentence here is less than perfect. 

Okay, that's the micro, but what about the macro? A story isn't just fine writing and control of tense and voice is it? What about plot, what about characters, and what about (this is SF after all) the ideas?

Here's ten stories that witness a real world. This one. Whatever they owe to traditions of genre they owe doubly to this world, its people and their hard lives, its history, to its fluxing myriad cultures — constantly adapting, re-adapting, merging, splitting — and to its ever-moving present. Even without having experienced anything quite like these futures I recognize them and feel them true.

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