Pump Six and Other Stories
 by Paolo Bacigalupi

Nightshade Books
2008, Hardback
First collection? Yes

Awards: 2009 Locus Award for Best collection; Pump Six won 2009 locus award for best novelette.

Paolo Bacigalupi is a multiple award winning writer from Colorado, the author of  various short stories plus the critically acclaimed novel The Windup Girl (2009)

Read an interview with Paolo Bacigalupi

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"I went over to Pump Six’s control panel ... all covered with dust, but it glowed when I ran my hand over it. Amber signals and lime text glowing authoritatively, telling me just what was wrong ... Raw data had stopped piping up to the control room at some point, and had instead set in the dark, waiting for someone to come down and notice it"

Reviewed by Mario Guslandi

It took me almost two thirds of this book to convince myself that I would been able to properly review it.

Truth be told I’m not very fond of SF, but the almost unanimous choir of praise for Bacigalupi’s work (incidentally this book has won the Locus Award for best collection) and the fact that, like me, he has an Italian name prompted me to give it a try.

Terry Bisson’s comments on the book jacket especially struck me as remarkable:

"I hate this guy. All of a sudden he comes out of nowhere, writing like a weird angel and knocking us old pros out of the box with stories about stuff we hadn’t gotten around to thinking up yet. Plus he’s young and good looking. Luckily, he has an unpronounceable name."

(I find the name quite pronounceable, but never mind...)The fact is that in the present volumes the stories are arranged in order of publication, so that, rather predictably, they became more accomplished and mature as I kept reading.

For instance, the very first story Pocketful of Dharma, a technological adventure set in a future Asia, in which the Dalai Lama risks to become for ever a disembodied soul, remains somehow not quite convincing. Moreover some of the more strictly SF pieces (and usually the more celebrated by SF critics) are placed in the first half of the book, hence my initial difficulties.

A fine example is the Hugo & Nebula Award finalist The People of Sand and Slag, depicting a post-human future where the discovery of a surviving dog - an impossibility - puts off balance people unaccustomed to the very concept of having a pet.

Bacigalupi’s bleak view of the future and pessimistic attitude towards the evolution of mankind reach their peak both in the Theodore Sturgeon Award winner The Calorie Man, portraying a grim world, based on a new economy order, where energy is produced from genetically modified food and in Pop Squad where people are continuously rejuvenated , leaving no room to younger generations. Not exactly my thing, fascinating as the stories may be.

I’ve enjoyed much more the delicate The Fluted Girl, an offbeat, captivating fantasy tale featuring the slave of a rich woman, whose body has been transformed by multiple surgery into a musical instrument and the horrific Softer (a real departure from the author’s usual writing style), a solid piece of fiction where a man murders his wife and then coldly plans how to reschedule his own life.

To me, however, the best stories are the Hugo Award nominated The Yellow Card and the Locus Award winning Pump Six, not only the most recent in the volume (a sign that this young writer is getting better and better with the passing of the time), but also tales where the human race is closer to what currently is and people exhibit human feelings and behaviours.

In the first, superb story, an old Chinese refugee in Bangkok - formerly a wealthy and important man in his country - fights hard to survive, experiencing poverty, hunger and painful humiliations in an hostile environment where there’s no room for pity.

The excellent Pump Six, set in a polluted future world, describes the honest efforts of a worker to reactivate the city’s out-of-order sewerage system by trying to fix an old machine that nobody knows how to work because no-one has been trained in engineering. For a fan of dark fiction like me, that’s scarier than most horror stories.

Read The Fluted Girl, a story from this collection at Windup Stories

Mario Guslandi lives in Milan, Italy. Most likely the only Italian who regularly reads (and reviews) dark fiction in English, his book reviews have appeared in a number of genre websites such as The Alien Online, Infinity Plus, The SF Site, The Agony Column and Horrorworld.

Mario's other Short Reviews: Simon Stranzas "Cold to the Touch"

Cern Zoo anthology

Deborah Biancotti "A Book of Endings"

Joseph Payne Brennan "The Feaster from Afar and Other Ghastly Inhabitants
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