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Literature / Pump Six And Other Stories

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Pump Six and Other Stories is Paolo Bacigalupi's debut collection of short stories. It's full of social criticism, political parables and environmental advocacy, while often indulging in extremely black humour.

Almost all stories contained in the collection were at least nominated for prestigious awards in sci-fi literature. With massive helping of Bio Punk, they feature different but closely related visions of a bleak future, in which Earth is/was ravaged by different kinds of cataclysms or has been taken over by amoral MegaCorps, with a focus on how human society has adapted to the changes and how advances in technology could effectively rob us of our humanity - and nobody would care.

The collection contains following stories:

  • Pocketful of Dharma
  • The Fluted Girl
  • The People of Sand and Slag
  • The Pasho
  • The Calorie Man
  • The Tamarisk Hunter
  • Pop Squad
  • Yellow Card Man
  • Softer
  • Pump Six
  • Small Offerings

Many of them would be later expanded into full-length books (for example, Yellow Card Man and The Calorie Man were combined into single setting and recycled into The Windup Girl).


Pump Six and Other Stories provides examples of:

  • And Man Grew Proud: In The Calorie Man, humanity managed to reach astonishing advances in genetics and then proceeded to spend the remaining resources and manpower on vanity projects. After the collapse of civilization as we know it, things like plastic plaques and ads are considered valuable artifacts and testimony to the hubris of the old world, where oil could be wasted on such useless things as making toys.
  • Artistic License – Ships: The concept of barges hauling grain downstream with no additional speed than current just can't work. To have any form of maneuverability, a boat must move faster than the waterflow. Just moving with the current would put a barge on a shore at the first bend in the river and make it act like a spinning top.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: Yellow Card Man is foreshadowing future issues with The Windup Girl. It has almost no relation with actual Malay-Chinese names. Or Thai ones, for that matter. It's especially jarring, given how in other stories, at least names are properly researched for the supposed ethnicity of the characters.
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  • Bio Punk: All over the place. Augmentations, transgenic organisms, body modifications, MegaCorps based around genetic engineering and so on.
  • Bittersweet Ending: While most stories end up with outright DownerEndings, in The Calorie Man, while Bowman is killed and his research data accidentally destroyed, Lalji realises the grain he's hauling is patent-free and fertile, so there is still a chance to plant it and make the old man's dream come true.
  • Body Horror: The titular Fluted Girl is Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
  • Child Soldier: Creo is working as Lalji's bodyguard. He's somewhere between 12 and 16. Nobody sees anything wrong with it.
  • Crapsack World: All the stories take place in different versions of future Earth, which share one thing in common - humans managed to destroy it and now are either living on scraps left by the previous civilization or have augmented themselves so much that they no longer need a hospitable planet. Cruelty and indifference are the main themes of the collection.
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check: All the MegaCorps could make a real profit if they used their patented grain to get even more precious high-grade alcohol - a perfect fuel. Instead, they prefer to use their monopoly simply to oppress everyone around the world.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Every story thrives on this trope. All the horrific and outright wrong elements of them are treated by everyone in-story as something perfectly natural and normal, if not boring. Be it extreme cruelty, wanton environmental destruction, widespread poverty or absolute lack of empathy.
  • Domesticated Dinosaurs: Not exactly dinosaurs, but the megodont is a bio-engineered organism combining elephant and mastodon DNA and used as a beast of burden.
  • Eat the Dog: The conclusion of The People of Sand and Slag.
  • Feudal Future: The Calorie Man has shades of it, with people working on company-owned fields in form of serfdom.
  • Future Food Is Artificial: Not exactly food itself, but the only plants still growing are heavily-modified GMO crops in many stories. When Creo is given a real, natural tomato in The Calorie Man, he finds the concept of taste disgusting. Meanwhile Lalji, who is old enough to remember food before MegaCorps destroyed all non-GMO food, is in heaven when finally eating something other than tasteless corn and soy.
  • Future Slang: Entire conversations full of it. It also lampshades how society has changed in each story, by no longer using specific terms or even knowing them.
  • Gaia's Lament: All the stories have shades of it, but two stand out the most:
    • In The Calorie Man, most of the world's crops and foliage were destroyed by bio-engineered plagues and pests while a few corporations were battling each other over the monopoly on the seed market. While it takes place in Post-Peak Oil, the world is far from clean or green - most plantlife was destroyed and the remaining edible plants are all sterile, so most of the world is barren aside corporation-owned mega-farms. Most of animals went extinct due to prolonged famine and the ones remaining were freakishly redesigned genetically to survive on minimal feed, while providing maximum energy.
    • By all accounts Earth from The People of Sand and Slag is a toxic, barren wasteland that's unable to support any contemporary lifeforms. But since the characters in the story have been modified in a way that allows them to survive on the sand and slag of the title (and much worse things), they are absolutely unaware of how bad things around them are. One of the scenes takes place on a Hawaiian beach, describing in lovely detail the glistening of the oil in the dark ocean and the beach itself covered in so much debris there is barely any sand left - yet everyone treats it like a perfect Beach Episode, with great weather and all.
  • Hope Spot: In The Calorie Man Bowman is revealed as one of the old geneticists, who spent the last few years recreating fertile seeds, while giving them all the positive capabilities of the patented variety. He has all the knowledge and his computer stores all the data in case anything happens to him. Cue a random sweep by the corporation guards - Bowman ends up dead, while the computer is accidentally thrown overboard during the short fight.
  • Irony: Pump Six is probably the least known and most definitely the least praised of all the stories, while it provides the title for the anthology.
  • Last of His Kind:
    • Bowman is the very last geneticist alive in The Calorie Man
    • The stray dog from The People of Sand and Slag might be the very last specimen living in the wild, bordering on Dying Race. The sheer damage and toxicity its body sustained makes it too weak to survive weeviltech implants, making it even more unique.
  • Lost Technology: Heavily implied in The Calorie Man about bio-engineering. All the old genetic specialists simply died out due to old age or were actively hunted down by seed corporations. And due to the collapse of education system, the lab workers are trained to do specific tasks, but can't perform any modifications because they don't have any actual knowledge beyond their station training. It becomes a plot point when Bowman provides a huge supply of fertile seeds - there is literally nobody left that can stop it once the seeds are planted, nor can they engineer a new plague to kill the fertile variety.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: Thanks to "weeviltech", humans from The People of Sand and Slag are virtually indestructible. The story opens with the main character jumping off a speeding aircraft without a parachute, breaking half of the bones in his body and smashing most of his internal organs... and getting up, as if nothing happened. The story then examines how this kind of ability would affect humanity as a species.
  • Meaningful Name: Weeviltech. Sure, a technology based on bio-engineered weevils... now read it syllable by syllable.
  • Nigh-Invulnerability: One of the main themes of The People of Sand and Slag is how, by gaining the ability to survive pretty much anything (we are talking about breaking their spines, eating sand for food, and regrowing lost limbs within few hours), humanity lost absolutely any interest in or desire to preserve the world around it. Soon after, people became completely indifferent to each other, as the concept of causing harm no longer exists.
  • Post-Peak Oil: Shows up here and there in the stories. Not all of them share it as a background, though.
  • Ragnarök Proofing: Subverted in Pump Six. The pumping station the entire region depends on to recycle all the toxic mutating waste - which would otherwise flood the area and generate no end of death and Body Horror - has been running for decades with minimal maintenance by an increasingly indifferent authority made out of increasingly stupider humans. As the pumps finally start to die, the resident tech - the only one to have a grasp on how serious the emergency is - discovers that they have been running way out of spec for far longer than they were meant to, with more and more malfunctions and alarms, until critical parts have begun to fail. And spares haven't been available in a long time...
  • Riches to Rags: Tranh was once wealthy head of the multi-national "Three Prosperities" trading company. Now he's a homeless refugee in a future Bangkok. And it's a common situation for Malay-Chinese people in the story, with the city filled with extremely overqualified people doing menial jobs - if they are lucky enough to get one in the first place.
  • Rule of Cool: Humanity developing complex spring mechanisms and using bio-engineered animals as source of power - muscle power - rather than, you know, using wind and watermills. Or turning all that grain into alcohol, which can run engines pretty well. It takes a hefty dose of Willing Suspension of Disbelief to take certain settings seriously.
  • Running Gag: "A biojob with no hands?"
  • Schizo Tech: In stories taking place Post-Peak Oil, technology is just plain weird. Genetically modified pack animals are powering massive capstans, transmitting mechanical energy to spring-based storage devices. Said springs are then used to power the engines of barges, transporting huge quantities of patented GMO seeds. Mandatory Zeppelins from Another World and clippers are the main means of long-range transportation. And let's not forget about computers being powered by treadles. While industrial complexes and factories still exist, they are just huge glorified sweat-shops, operating only during daylight, to save on the energy required for factory lights.
  • Team Pet: Subverted with the dog from The People of Sand and Slag - after realising how much hassle it is to keep one around and not willing to pay for it, the characters decide to eat the dog instead. Then the main character comments how he can't see what's so special about eating organic food.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: While present in all stories, it's especially prominent in The People of Sand and Slag, where humanity is no longer even a biological lifeform and due to Nigh-Invulnerability it is absolutely indifferent to completely killing life on Earth. The planet is a toxic wasteland, where non-augmented life-forms can only survive in highly controlled and artificially maintained environments. But nobody cares.

Example of: