Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Pump Six

Paolo Bacigalupi Pump Six (2008)

I came across Paolo Bacigalupi a few years ago when Fantasy & Science Fiction printed the short story after which this collection is named. Of all the digest magazines, Fantasy & Science Fiction can generally be relied upon to feature the good stuff, but Pump Six stood out even amongst the notably high standard of their September 2008 issue, and whilst I'm figuratively sucking dicks, it's not even the best story here.

Lawrence Miles, speaking in an interview that I'm presently unable to find, once noted the general reluctance of science-fiction authors to deal with the immediate future - although he may have been referring to Doctor Who novelists for whatever that's generally worth - the point being that the environmental issues we face are serious and depressing and hardly conducive to romping space opera. This is probably why everyone's either rewriting Flash Gordon for the umpteenth time or chortling over steam-driven computing engines called Montague.

Well, maybe not everybody...

Bucking this trend, Paolo Bacigalupi just goes for it, invoking post-technological worlds without icecaps, oil, or motorised travel as any kind of option; where patented GM crops and animals have run wild, grey squirrelling all natural competition into extinction. It's plausible, fascinating, and in places horrifying - genetically modified servants as property in The Fluted Girl, or The People of Sand and Slag who eat their dog having decided it wasn't much of a pet. It's the mundane horror of ordinary human cruelty rather than the gratuitous torture porn of Iain Banks and others; and it's all the more effective for having a narrative point beyond simple shock value. These are stories that could happen.

It also helps that the guy writes like a dream - rich, descriptive prose painting a world in which almost everything is new and alien whilst retaining disturbing familiarity. At times it's almost too rich, notably in The Calorie Man which requires the reader to wrestle the details of characters struggling with a post-technological economy amongst flashbacks which confuse as much as they explain; but at short story length you don't mind so much, and he gets away with it.

Paolo Bacigalupi has been compared to William Gibson - which isn't too far off the mark given the concern with corporations and his particularly textural descriptive flourishes; and has been described as steampunk - which is way off the mark given that his stories take us forward and lack the requisite clich├ęd romping bullshit in fashionable aviator goggles; but at present he's looking decidedly unique in many respects. If you only read one book this century etc. etc.

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