Pump Six

January 18, 2013

Our species can barely handle the present day: how the hell are we going to handle the future?

Pump Six was Paolo Bacigalupi’s first collection of short stories, two of which inspired his novel The Windup Girl. Like the novel, the stories in Pump Six imagine what life might be like if our species’ current challenges–global warming, technology outpacing morality, inequality, and environmental degradation most prominently–go unaddressed.

I found these stories intoxicating. One of Bacigalupi’s prime virtues as a storyteller is his measured illumination of what’s really going on. He drops you in the middle of a world, disoriented enough not to see it as you might expect, but as it is. You’ll be confused–Why are people behaving this way? What is this “cleansing” they refer to?–but as you slowly figure out how this particular world works, you’ll feel the eureka-like ecstasy of comprehension. At least I did.

This is useful because these are, after all, cautionary tales. In the same way the reader only gradually learns that, for example, the widespread infertility that one story’s characters take for granted is the result of decades of unchecked pollution, we in the real world seems to learn only gradually and often too late that the BPAs in our ubiquitous plastic bottles can cause birth defects or that the chemicals used in rapidly-expanding hydraulic fracture drilling can cause cancer. In other words, Pump Six wouldn’t be nearly as interesting to read a century ago (or, I’m sure, a century hence). Its stories are a dialogue with our time, and Bacigalupi’s side of the dialogue tends to begin with “Really, guys? Did you even try to think this one through? Okay, let me show you…”

A few of the stories especially resonate with me:

The Fluted Girl

In the world of “The Fluted Girl”, society is organized into fiefdoms run by the idle rich. (Imagine Downton Abbey but replace the noblesse oblige with sociopathy.) It’s perhaps a parody of a society that values “job creators” above all else–after all, when everyone serves at the pleasure of a lord or lady, the aristocracy is the de facto source of all jobs.

The story begins benignly enough with a servant-girl’s recalcitrant game of hide-and-seek, but as the reader pieces together clues to the true meaning of the story’s title, one sees everything in a new, unsettling light.

The People of Sand and Slag

A simple story about a group of security contractors guarding a mining operation. When one casually cuts his arm off and expects it to regenerate, we learn that in this future, people’s bodies are suffused with nanobots that not only regrow limbs but allow them to eat all manner of synthetic substances to power their metabolisms. The characters are pretty much like us, except they snack on ore tailings and get blades implanted on their bodies in lieu of tattoos.

The story’s mild drama involves the group happening upon a dog–an unexpected thing since in this world, with nanobot-embedded people able to survive in toxic environments, pollution has gone unchecked and nearly everything purely biological had perished. They try to keep it alive, but their clumsiness around the beast indicates just how far removed from purely animal life these people, if they can still bear that name, are.

The Pasho

One of my favorites, “The Pasho” explores some really deep issues around technology and culture. At heart, it’s about whether it is possible to respect the old ways when the old ways are set upon rejecting the new, because the old ways see technology not as culturally neutral, but as a threat. In the story’s world are two peoples: the Jai from the desert who wage war on the Keli, a coastal people. The Keli are more technologically advanced, but not so much that they can withstand a crusade of the Jai with their emblematic hook knives (like those of the Dothraki in Game of Thrones).

All of this takes place after an unexplained event called “The Cleansing,” which seems to have been some kind of apocalypse or nuclear war that sent the whole world back to the Stone Age. Now there are the Pasho, keepers of knowledge trained by the Keli who must be very cautious about their investigations, lest some knowledge or technology too powerful fall into the wrong hands once more.

Raphel, born a Jai and newly made a Pasho, returns home to find his grandfather, an aging Jai warlord, preparing for a new crusade against the Keli. Raphel struggles to make his grandfather respect his choice to learn among the Keli, his ancestral enemy, but his grandfather fears, perhaps rightfully so, that adopting anything of Keli influence–even their seemingly benign umbrellas–undermines the Jai traditions he has fought, and killed, to maintain.

If a technology (political or material) can benefit a people, should it be rejected just because it is foreign? What if it might actually undermine local ways? Keli culture has indeed been seeping into Jai (though we do not know if the reverse is true). Is knowledge culturally neutral? It certainly changes cultures, but in doing so does it make them all the same? Certainly, it is up to cultures themselves to decide whether to incorporate foreign knowledge (it should not be forced upon them), as Raphel decides for the Jai. But what right does he have to do so? Is he Jai, or is he compromised? His motives seem pure–to improve the lives of his people by teaching them well-digging and better planting–but pure motives to not guarantee just action.

The Calorie Man

The first of two stories that set the foundation for The Windup Girl, The Calorie Man introduces to a “post-expansion” world in which food is globally scarce and multinational agribusinesses wage economic and biological warfare on each other, with all of humanity suffering the collateral damage. These multinationals, like AgriGen and PurCal, compete for monopoly by releasing genetically engineered super-blights–like the evocatively-named blister rust, cibiscosis, and genehack weevil–designed to destroy each others’ crops. The main character, Lalji, laments:

Somewhere over there, perhaps in those very acres, AgriGen created SoyPRO. And everyone thought they were such wonderful people….And then the weevil came, and suddenly there was nothing else to eat.

“The Calorie Man” follows Lalji up the Mississippi river on a mission to rescue an old man. He doesn’t learn the man’s importance until it’s too late.

The Tamarisk Hunter

“The Tamarisk Hunter” takes place in a water-starved future American west, where California sucks up water from the surrounding states and threatens with mercenaries anyone or anything that would stem the flow. The state has closed its borders, and likely its eyes, to the misery and violence perpetrated so that folks in Hollywood might have ice in their drinks.

Pop Squad

The most disturbing story, “Pop Squad” takes place in a world in which (at least among the affluent) human life can be extended indefinitely thanks to “rejoo” treatments that turn back our cellular clocks. To prevent overpopulation, rejoo was engineered to cause infertility as well. But there is a subculture of women who forego rejoo in order to bear children illegally, all of them condemned to live as fugitives. The main character is a cop on the “pop squad” whose job it is to chase down these women, exterminate their children, and send the outlaw mothers to labor camps. He treats this like just another job, as time has made the idea of humans giving birth as unethical, even unnatural, to him as murdering children in cold blood is to us.

When our cop confronts one such mother, he questions, “I was just curious about what you breeders are thinking.” Her reply, under duress and with gritted teeth, is illuminating:

You know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking we need something new. I’ve been alive for one hundred and eighteen years and I’m thinking that it’s not just about me. I’m thinking I want a baby and I want to see what she sees today when she wakes up and what she’ll find and see that I’ve never seen before because that’s new. Finally, something new. I love seeing things through her little eyes and not through dead eyes like yours.

Pump Six

The collection’s titular story is about a man, Alvarez, who works for the city of New York keeping the sewage pumps running. He’s an average guy by our standards, but like Owen Wilson’s character in Idiocracy, Alvarez is a genius by the standards of the imbecilic world in which he lives. Adults and children alike eat manufactured “brekkie bars” for breakfast and drink “Sweatshine” soda all day. There are creatures called “Trogs”, prelinguistic neanderthals who live bestial lives, naked and freely indulging their bodily functions in public.

We feel Alvarez’s frustration when he has to chastise his partner, Chee, for having a spontaneous toilet paper fight with colleagues during an emergency. But lest he feel unappreciated, Alvarez is celebrated as a hero when he helps his club-owner friend Max figure out why the booze has stopped flowing (the keg was empty).

Alvarez, a rare individual for feeling any sense of responsibility for keeping the world functioning, laments:

Maggie [his girlfriend] would have said that was someone else’s problem, but she just thought so because when she flushed the toilet, it still worked. At the end of the day, it seemed like some people just got stuck dealing with the shit, and some people figured out how to have a good time.

One worries for the fate of the world when the Alvarezes give up or die out.