Paolo Bacigalupi’s debut collection of stories, Pump Six, is a call to get the world off the disastrous path the author fears we are on. Bacigalupi is a former editor at High Country News, and his profound sense of the connection between humanity and the consequences of our actions on the landscape permeates his stories. One of these, “The Tamarisk Hunter,” is deeply informed by the author’s knowledge of water rights battles in the western states. As with many pieces in this collection, Bacigalupi tells a bleak larger story through an episode in the life of one character: in this case, an eponymous tamarisk hunter who removes this invasive species from the Colorado River’s banks. As the hunter scrapes and wheedles his living from the river, California, unbeknownst to him, has legislated him out of home and business.
There are occasional moments of humor, but most of Bacigalupi’s writing is almost unremittingly dark. “Softer,” the one story without a surface-level environmental reading, is about a man who escapes his life after one brutal act changes everything. In “Pop Squad,” Bacigalupi posits a solution to the overpopulation problems that immortality causes — it has to be read to be believed. Two stories,”Yellow Card Man” and “The Calorie Man,” are set in a post-oil future. While the first offers hope against a world dominated by the iron fist of food corporations, the second is a more typical and grimly satisfying Bacigalupian take on the world — where individuals have to struggle so hard to survive that they cannot see beyond their own lives.
Most of these stories were previously published in science fiction magazines and anthologies, but “Pump Six” is new and stands out within the collection. Given its active and thoughtful protagonist who, in the face of long odds, tries to fix one of New York’s massive sewer pumps, it is a nominally hopeful story. Yet to anyone who considers herself already a mite too dependent on machines (of whose actual workings she knows very little), “Pump Six” is absolutely horrifying in its extrapolation. This is the nub of Bacigalupi’s fiction. He is angry and worried that unless we do something drastically different, our daily lives might end up looking something like those of the characters in his stories.