Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book Review: Six Pump and Other Stories

Yeah I know, dystopia tales aren't exactly "Christmasy". But why not add a little grit to the holiday season? (it adds texture, you know)

This is a collection of ten tales by Paolo Bagigalupi (my first time reading him), and I'm going to do something different and grade each story on its own merits, because there's always a few hits and misses in these story collections. *Warning: Possible spoilers/rants ahead*

Pocketful of Dharma - This is the story about a boy named Wang Jun, living in poverty, happens upon a datacube that holds something significant -- and others are willing to kill to get it. 

Not a bad story, it had a bit of a slow start, starting with a description of a living building. But despite following this kid around as he runs from the bad guys, I really didn't care for the MC. Mostly due to a lack of personality; nothing more than a urban urchin. Though the ending was a redeeming factor, one of those "what happens next?" I know some people don't like those endings because they lack a resolution, but at the same time, it allows the reader to decide how things go -- and depending on your disposition, it may turn out well or poorly.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Fluted Girl - Now this story I loved, in fact, best story in this entire collection. What really compelled me to read this story in one sitting (and these aren't exactly short-short stories), was that I wanted to know what the heck a fluted girl was in the first place. The fluted girl is forced into this servitude along with her twin sister, and surgically worked on to become the prized possessions of a mistress, who is inflicting her own fate upon them. The characters are interesting, have personality, though, the fluted girl is a little flat, but that's okay since you want to find what exactly she does. Sort of twisted world where surgical modification, and not just boob jobs, but completely reworking the entire human body, becomes a means of entertainment. Very creepy. Once again, it has the "what happens next?" ending, which still works, I think.  

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The People of Sand and Slag - This was a story that could have been really good had the author not copped out. The set up is that we have these modified humans who can survive the toxicity of Earth, and yes, they can eat sand as well as regenerate whole limbs. They come across a dog, who managed to survive despite the harsh conditions. They quarrel as to whether they should eat or keep the dog. They keep it, and even though its a hassle, the MC develops some warm feelings toward the creature. The MC questions death -- why someone would even want to die, rather than to live forever -- and whether they can still consider themselves human.

But all this philosophical stuff is dashed away when the author pulls the "people are assholes" ending; I don't need to read a story to know that. They get tired of caring for the dog and eat it. Yeah, just like that. Even if the dog had to die, at least show that having the dog had some sort of impact on the MC. Maybe the MC decided to respectfully bury the dog, like it was a person, rather than meat. You know, something more meaningful.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

The Pasho - A Pasho is a wiseman, history written on every inch of his skin. Now the MC, a new Pasho, returns home to his dry and dusty homeland where the people keep their blades sharp. The grandfather doesn't care for his grandson's newly appointed position of spreading knowledge, especially when that knowledge comes from the very people they use to slaughter. Grandfather refuses to change his ways, and plans to start war. So what does a a well educated young man do? Does he use his vast knowledge to convince his grandfather of the good things these people have done? Nope. Instead, we get the cop out ending, because it's so much simpler to kill somebody, right? Unfortunately, it does not impress, especially this reader.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The Calorie Man - We follow Lalji as he goes on a mission to find the calorie man, a person he may be able to turn the tide against the genetic pests that haunt their world. Everything is grown and produced by the calorie companies, leaving humanity at their mercy.

Now this story has some silver lining, and we get some fighting action, too. But I had the same issue that I did with  Pocketful of Dharma, I just didn't really care about the MC. And I'm thinking this is an issue with Bagigalupi's writing in general, as I've heard the same complaints about The Windup Girl.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Tamarisk Hunter - Lolo hunts for water that hasn't been regulated by the government, and even plants new springs in the hopes they'll prosper and he won't have to move up north and leave is all he's ever known behind.

Now this story was terrible on several levels. First off, it's written in present tense, and the issue with present tense is that it comes off waaaaay too choppy. For example, in present tense: "I go to the store and I buy some cookies."
While in the past tense, you'd say: "I went to the story and bought some cookies". 

Say both of those phrases out loud. Now which one flows or sounds smoother to you? I bet it's the phrase in past tense, right?

The next offense of this story is that the narration is told in such a distancing way, which doesn't help me to become involved the MC's plight. And then, in the end, when Big Daddy (a throw back to Big Brother) comes a knockin', the MC does nothing. Maybe he would have done something, but the story ends and we'll never know.

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Pop Squad - At the beginning of this story, I was indifferent toward the MC because he goes around with a crew and kills children and arrests their mothers because people are no longer allowed to breed in the future -- why breed when everyone lives forever?

But as the story develops, the MC really starts to think about what compels women, and the men who donate the sperm, to cut themselves off from society in order to procreate. Now this MC felt real, he has a conscience, though he doesn't quite fully grasp it, and intelligence. And unlike Bagiglupi's other character's, he doesn't opt for the asshole option when he tracks down, on his own, a woman and her child. It reminded me a lot of Decker in Blade Runner, when Rachel asks if he'd hunt her down. He responds, "No, no I wont...but somebody would."

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Yellow Card Man -  Our MC, Tranh, is a Chinese refugee who nearly escaped with his life after revolutionaries took over in his homeland of China. Now he has to survive in a foreign land, oppressed, hungry, and alone. Oh, and the Windup Girl makes an appearance in this story.

Oh gosh, once again, an MC that I did not care for. Not one bit. Worse of all, he goes for the asshole option. I get that there are assholes out there, I just don't want to read about them -- and if they are an asshole, give me a damn good reason why. Personally, I rather see a character choose the more creative option, it may not be fair, but it's better than cop out, I-don't-know-how-to-end-this-story-any-other-way. Lame, lame, lame.

Also, Bagigalupi, stop writing in present tense because you don't know how to do it very well.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Softer - Oh-my-god! A story that isn't dark and depressing -- who would've thought? This story is about a man who kills his wife, not on purpose, just one of these spaz moments, and then soaks with her corpse in a bath tub. Oddly enough, even though this character didn't have a sympathetic past, I actually found him very relatable; he was well-defined and that's how characters should be. Methinks Bagigalupi tries too hard, forcing foreign characters into his stories, and they end up being more stock than real.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars (seriously, this story was a breath of fresh air)

Pump Six - Ah, now we come to our title story, and usually, the author saves the best for last. Well, maybe Bagigalupi thought this was his best, but for me, it was meh. I think because I've seen this done before, or at least this concept. Hell, Ayn Rand did it in Atlas Shrugged, just without the spec fic elements. The MC in this story is stuck in a world where the human population is slowly degrading (i.e. everyone is becoming stupider) and they're the only one with enough sense to see it. Yet, the MC is helpless.

However, the MC wasn't an asshole and I found him interesting, and at least he tried to do something, although I think he could've done more. I mean if I were him, I'd try to find other people with respectable intelligence in the hopes of rebuilding society. But I suppose that would be something for a novel.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

So, if I were to take an average...3.45 stars, though I'll round down and say 3 stars overall. That's not to say Bagigalupi is a terrible writer (but he is terrible at present tense), he's got some world-building chops and obviously understands other cultures and how to weave them into his stories. It's just his characters, overall, are not very well-written. And like I said before, this is a complaint I've read in Amazon reviews of The Windup Girl, which doesn't make me terribly interested in reading it -- I don't care how many awards it won. I'm not interested in reading an entire novel and not giving a damn about the characters.


  1. op Squad and The Pasho are my 2 favs, I remember each one relatively well. The first one for being so disturbing and the second for the image of the MC with all those tattoos on his body, back in his hometown, a "changed and civilized" man who kills his own for the greater good.

    You should read some stuff by Jason Sanford. I *especially* recommend the short story "When Thorns Are The Tips Of Tree." Peace & love. --Koobie

    PS. I wish this thing had an EDIT button for the EDIT button is my friend. :D

  2. Hey Max! (yeah, I know what you mean about needing an edit option on these posts)

    I did like The Pasho and how there was a lot of world-building that went into it -- would have made a great premise for a novel -- but it was the ending that disappointed me, and I like my ending to be just as good as the entire story. A truly wise man would've found an alternative to killing. But that's just me.

    Thanks for the recommendation, I'll definitely check out some of Jason Sanford's stuff.