Pump Six and Other Stories, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi is the author of some truly impressive science fiction novels, including The Windup Girl and The Water Knife. This collection of 11 short stories was published in 2010. Some of the stories were honored by the Hugo and Nebula awards.

All the stories are earth-bound, frequently in third-world countries in a strangely dystopian future. A brief synopsis of the stories:

“Pocketful of Dharma”: A beggar in China winds up with the soul of a lama stored in a small data cube.

“The Fluted Girl”: A young girl lives enslaved in a brothel, her bones replaced with hollow glass so that she may be played like a flute.

“The People of Sand and Slag”: In a toxic future world in which people have “evolved” to survive on eating soil a work team discovers a rare dog.

“The Pasho”: A young man returns to his village and faces the challenge of a fundamentalist father who wants to destroy the urban world he just left.

“The Calorie Man”: In a future where corporations control all genetic crops, where one of the only foods available is a soy paste from sterile plants, and insects or disease destroys all other crops, a pair of men travel to find a man who has found a way to break the corporations’ genetic monopoly.

“The Tamarisk Hunter”: In a future in which Los Angeles has claim to the full output of the Colorado River, a man living in the desert earns bounty money by pulling thirsty tamarisk plants that he plants himself at night.

“Pop Squad”: Humans now use a rejuvenation drug that allows them to live youthfully for decades, but it also makes them sterile. The narrator is on a team that hunts down those who have stopped the treatment to give birth, with a warrant to shoot their children on sight.

“Yellow Card Man”: In a future Thailand overrun with disease and bioengineered beasts, a Chinese man already part of exile from Malaysia tries to navigate a new world of poverty and rejection.

“Softer”: A man who has killed his wife has trouble getting anyone to listen to his confession so he plans an escape to a new life.

“Pump Six”: A man working in a sewage processing plan in a now nearly-illiterate world has trouble finding someone to help him repair failing pumps in the plant.

Bacigalupi writes of people trying to find their way in a future that now works against them in insidious ways. The stories are beautifully written, though I think there are times when his endings hit an easier resolution than the story warrants. Still, he writes unique characters in vivid worlds that are wounded or have collapsed. This is a great collection for either fans of the author or those interested in a unique science fiction vision with exceptional prose.

Short story collections are wonderful to carry around. I used to keep one short story and one poetry book in a backpack at all times, something I can now do on a Kindle, for waiting for a bus, waiting for an appointment, taking a break at work … those short times in which you can absorb a full story or poem rather than getting just a chunk of a novel or nonfiction book. It’s a pleasant way to fill otherwise dead time, plus you help encourage authors and publishers to keep filling the market with more.