I nod absently as I shake monsoon water from my hat. "Great. Thanks." Liquid beads scatter on the floor, joining puddles of wet from the pop squad along with the maggot debris of the spaghetti dinner. I put my hat back on. Water still manages to drip off the brim and slip under my collar, a slick rivulet of discomfort. Someone closes the door to the outside. The shit smell thickens, eggy and humid. The nosecap barely holds it off. Old peas and bits of cereal crunch under my feet. They squish with the spaghetti, the geologic layers of past feedings. The kitchen hasn't been self-cleaned in years.
The older woman coughs and pulls her nightgown tighter around her cellulite and I wonder, as I always do when I come into situations like this, what made her choose this furtive nasty life of rotting garbage and brief illicit forays into daylight.
'Pop Squad', which appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine back in late 2006 and has now been collected in the excellent Pump Six (2008), was my first encounter with Paolo Bacigalupi's short fiction.
It wasn't the sort of reading experience you readily forget. Between the cops in hats, the rain, the light - which "strobes" through window blinds - and the world-weary voiceover, the story's opening is every inch the film noir. But it is more grimy (and pungent) than the clean lines of noir usually allow. These criminal women may be fetchingly half-dressed, but they provoke only disgust in the narrator; the clothes they are barely wearing are stained, the thighs they fail to cover are notable only for cellulite. There is an animalistic air to the way (just before the quoted passage) the older woman's breasts "sway", and to the fact that this kitchen produces not meals but "feedings". A clear sense of menace pervades the scene; a few pages later, this menace abruptly resolves in an arresting burst of violence, as the apartment's young children are linked up before the narrator:
"Sorry, kids. Mommy's gone."
I pull out my Grange. Their heads kick back in successive jerks, bang bang bang down the line, holes appearing on their foreheads like paint and their brains spattering out the back. Their bodies flip and skid on the black mirror floor. They land in jumbled piles of misaligned limbs. For a second, gunpowder burn makes the stench bearable.
You might say I was taken aback.
The roots of this dystopia, like so much of Bacigalupi's work, lie in a bleak view of humankind's future, in a world of scarce resources and wholesale environmental collapse. In 'Pop Squad', these issues are compounded by the technological breakthrough of "rejoo", a treatment that essentially enables those who take it to live forever, but which brings with it sterility. To the immortals, lounging decadently in their lofty homes - glittering spires that literally tower over the slums below, social standing inscribed on the urban landscape - this is a worthwhile trade: they live their own posterity, rather than entrusting their legacies to the uncertain tenancy of their offspring.
The only way to reproduce is to drop off the grid, and give up rejoo. But in this brave new world, having children is both illegal - because it increases the strain on the (we're told) already overstretched resource base of the society - and taboo - because these children, being illicit, will never be able to become full members of society, and take rejoo for themselves. To the narrator, whose job it is to travel the city killing illegal children, what these mothers (never fathers) choose to do - producing "terminal kids", who are "going to end up as compost" - is simple cruelty. His partner, Alice - who devotes her long life to playing ever more complex pieces of music, vying for supremacy with other virtuosos - shares his incomprehension:
"I can't imagine it. Cutting rejoo like that." She sighs and reaches out to touch a bonsai. [...] "Why give all this up?"
I don't have an answer. I rewind the crime scene in my mind [...] There's something there in the stink and noise and darkness, something hot and obsessive and ripe. But I don't know what it is.
The pair's honest confusion is effectively disconcerting as a way of drawing you into this future's dominant worldview: parenting is seen as bizarre, selfish, wilfully destructive. But the narrator's rehearsal of his disgust begins to sound hollow, even to him:
Who the hell chooses to live in dark apartments with shitty diapers, instant food, and no sleep for years on end? The whole breeding thing is an anachronism - twenty-first-century ritual torture we don't need anymore. But these girls keep trying to turn back the clock and pop out the pups, little lizard brains compelled to pass on some DNA. And there's a new batch every year, little burps of offspring cropping up here and there, the convulsions of a species trying to restart itself and get evolution rolling again, like we can’t tell that we've already won.
He begins, inevitably, to Have Doubts. The sterility of rejoo is both biological and, it is argued, conceptual; immortality has produced nothing more than a society of the self-obsessed, all vapidity and stunted imaginations. This is where - on a re-read, with the shock value of the events consequently diminished - the premise began to lose me: it all starts to feel too much like a smug morality tale. And so, indeed, it proves. As the story wears on, Bacigalupi begins to lay on the gotcha a little too thickly; the characters' confusion edges over from interestingly alienating into look-how-wrong-they-are mockery:
She smiles and stands on tiptoe to kiss me. "If we weren't going to live forever, I'd marry you."
I laugh. "If we weren't going to live forever, I'd get you pregnant."
We look at each other. Alice laughs unsteadily and takes it as a joke.
"Don't be gross."
Marriage and pregnancy as gross-out punchline; how edgy. Which side do you think we're meant to be on, boys and girls? From here it is, unfortunately, but a short few steps to the narrator discovering a baby he can't bring himself to kill, and a woman - its mother - who turns him on with her body that fulfils its proper female functions and her voice that drips with the self-denying rage of maternal instinct. Biology, it turns out, really is destiny. It's not just, as Niall says, a cop-out; it's downright throwback.
Still, the story wallows in some wonderfully foetid-fecund imagery ("Everywhere I go, the baby world is ripping open around me, melons and seedpods and fertile wombs splitting open and vomiting babies onto the ground. We're drowning in babies. The jungle seems to seethe with them"). Such imagery, Pump Six demonstrates, is one of Bacigalupi's trademarks. The oldest piece here, 'Pocketful of Dharma' (1999), sets the tone with its striking description of a sort of organic engineering at work, a city growing into life like an immense artificial tree:
Construction workers dangled from its rising skeleton, swinging from one section of growth to the next on long rappelling belts. Others clambered unsecured, digging their fingers into the honeycomb structure, climbing the struts with careless dangerous ease. Soon the growing core would overwhelm the wet-tiled roofs of the old city. Then Huojianzhu, the Living Architecture, would become Chengdu entirely.
It grew on lattices of minerals, laying its own skeleton and following with cellulose skin. Infrastructure strong and broad, growing and branching, it settled roots deep into the green fertile soil of the Sichuan basin. It drew nutrients and minerals from the soil and sun, and the water of the rancid Bing Jiang; sucking at pollutants as willingly as it ate the sunlight which filtered through twining sooty mist.
Within, its veins and arteries grew pipelines to service the waste and food and data needs of its coming occupants. It was an animal vertical city built first in the fertile minds of the Biotects and now growing into reality.
The story itself is a minor one, by the collection's standards: a Blade Runner-inflected portrait of the neon-lit, rain-lashed halfworld that exists in the shadows of all this, seen through the eyes of a scarred and half-crippled economic refugee from "a silent dirt village where no thing lived", forced into criminal courier jobs by the need to eat. Despite its stylish trappings, though - and a disembodied Dalai Lama in a datacube, a cute and rather poignant touch - 'Dharma' is a fairly conventional tale of a black market job gone wrong and a young man in over his head.
The firmly East Asian future of 'Dharma' finds echoes in a pair of linked stories here, as well is in Bacigalupi's first novel, The Wind-Up Girl. 2005's 'The Calorie Man' introduces another post-collapse future in which - fossil fuels having run out - food is the new fuel, and control of 'calories' is consequently big business. Biotech companies have, accordingly, developed a stranglehold on agricultural production, tightly regulating the availability of food to protect the energy markets - that is, their profits - against any possible "flood of food". In an extrapolation of current trends, crops are genetically modified for maximal energy output, and the biotech companies hold the copyright, obliging anyone who grows their wares to pay royalties.
Subsistence farming is, unsurprisingly, squeezed out; given the demand for grain to power transport and electricity, many go hungry, despite high yields and the efforts of agribusiness accountants - "those small gods with more power than Kali to destroy the world", as the main character Lalji thinks of them - to "calculate calorie burn quotas for the world". Maudlin Lalji gets mixed up in smuggling "unstamped" calories - grain taken from fields before the proprietory firm can extract its royalties - and unusually for Bacigalupi this tale has a relatively hopeful ending. In the wrong hands, genetics can create destructive monocultures; in the right hands, it offers subversive solutions to corporate domination.
A more vivid and expansive exploration of this particular invented world - if more restricted in terms of the locations it actually visits - is found in the Bangkok-set 'Yellow Card Man' (2006). Both this and 'The Calorie Man' are tales of an individual struggling against a faceless system; but whereas the earlier story introduces the environment through a slightly folksy quest story, with Lalji journeying to meet the titular gene-splicer, 'Yellow Card Man' presents us with a whole ecosystem of economically desperate, and a central character whose dignity and degredation are deeply affecting. Again, Bacigalupi leads with a passage that blends the human with the dehumanised, emphasising both the plight of the main character - so poor he sleeps in the stairwell of a high-rise heat trap apartment building - and the staggering scale on which he is not alone in his poverty:
Tranh wakes, gasping.
Sharp concrete edges jam against the knuckles of his spine. A salt-slick thigh smothers his face. He shoves away the stranger's leg. Sweat-sheened skin glimmers in the blackness, impressionistic markers for the bodies that shift and shove all around him. They fart and groan and turn, flesh on flesh, bone against bone, the living and the heat-smothered dead all together.
A man coughs. Moist lungs and spittle gust against Tranh's face. His spine and belly stick to the naked sweating flesh of the strangers around him. Claustrophobia rises. He forces it down. Forces himself to lie still, to breathe slowly, deeply, despite the heat.
Escape from the "blast furnace" of the tower block brings Tranh only to more humanity, first a "crowd of congee sellers, hemp weavers, and potato carts", and then to the soul-destroying sight of his anonymous rivals, standing in line already for the fleeting chance of paid work:
Yellow cards, yellow men. Huang ren all around, and Tranh is late for his one opportunity to climb out of their mass. One opportunity in all his months as a yellow card Chinese refugee. And now he is late. He squeezes past a rat seller, swallowing another rush of saliva at the scent of roasted flesh, and rushes down an alley to the water pump. He stops short.
Ten others stand in line before him: old men, young women, mothers, boys.
He slumps. He wants to rage at the setback. If he had the energy - if he had eaten well yesterday or the day before or even the day before that he would scream, would throw his hemp bag on the street and stamp on it until it turned to dust - but his calories are too few.
This is a world in which environmental collapse is not even the most pressing problem; more serious, from Tranh's point-of-view, are religious fundamentalism and an upswell of anti-Chinese hatred (which twin forces saw Tranh burned out of his once-thriving shipping business: "Green used to mean things like coriander and silk and jade and now all it means to him is bloodthirsty men with patriotic headbands and hungry scavenging nights"), together with broader shifts in the economic centre of gravity. Multinational corporations' calorie monopolies and the use of biological agents against business rivals were bringing Tranh's Three Prosperities down even before the eruption of violence; in the present, he finds himself outmatched and outpriced by a burgeoning labour force even more willing to do back-breaking work for next-to-no pay than desperate immigrants like him: gene-ripped workers - people genetically modified to enhance certain traits, whether strength or speed or docility - are the new go-to underclass for companies looking to cut their labour costs.
For all the drama in Tranh's past, 'Yellow Card Man' is a finely-tuned story of the sort of little tragedies and tiny humiliations that loom large in the life of people with nothing else left. A horrific, split-second workplace accident underlines the precariousness of the existence of Tranh and the thousands upon thousands like him in the city; with no health and safety regulations, no social safety net, and his ability to work wiped out in an instant, Tranh's fragility is brought home shockingly. And yet it is the small reminders of this abrupt change in status, of his inability to do something as fundamental as feed himself, that finally remakes him into a creature of despair:
"I don't care if you hate me. Just take my food. Curse me later, when your belly is full."
Tranh tries to control his hunger, to force himself to walk away, but he can't. He knows men who might have enough face to starve before accepting Ma's scraps, but he isn’t one of them. A lifetime ago, he might have been. But the humiliations of his new life have taught him much about who he really is. He has no sweet illusions, now. He sits. Ma beams and pushes his half-eaten dishes across the table.
Localised environmental collapse is front and centre in 'The Tamarisk Hunter' (2006) (available online here), which takes the collection back to the US. Like Lalji in 'The Calorie Man', this story's protagonist Lolo negotiates the difficult realities of the resource-limited world around him by playing both sides. In this future, the besetting problem of the south-western US, access to water, has ballooned with rising populations, as states - and their corporate partners - pour vast amounts of money into controlling what happens to 'their' water upriver. Lolo scrapes a living by uprooting the plantlife that dares to share California's water supply - specifically, tamarisks (a big one, we're told in the opening line "can suck 73,000 gallons of river water a year").
The tiny income this brings in, and the strictly regulated water allowance that comes with it, is the only thing that enables Lolo to go on living in the region. "[W]here other people have dried out and blown away, he has remained: a tamarisk hunter, a water tick, a stubborn bit of weed"; here, again, we see Bacigalupi's fondness for imagery that unites human life with their organic environment. To protect his job, though, Lolo is also covertly planting fresh tamarisks ("his insurance policy"), to ensure he always has something to uproot down the line. Even this strategy, though, is being steadily overtaken by developing technology, driven by increasing - and inevitable? - tensions between cities and their rural hinterlands, between the population and the demands of industry. Months after I finished reading it, the story's most enduring image for me is the enclosure of the river:
"Out toward the border. Big old mother. So big you couldn't climb on top of it, flopped out on the desert like a damn silver snake. All the way to California." He spits reflexively. "They're spraying with concrete to keep water from seeping into the ground and they've got some kind of carbon-fiber stuff over the top to stop the evaporation. And the river just disappears inside. Nothing but an empty canyon below it. Bone-dry. And choppers and Humvees everywhere, like a damn hornet's nest. They wouldn't let me get any closer than a half mile on account of the eco-crazies trying to blow it up. They weren't nice about it, either."
An earlier examination of the problems of water access, made metaphor by its invented setting, is 'The Pasho' (2004). Here the issue is not so much one of lack, as one of potential abundance. A young man returns from a glittering, metallic city of plenty to the desolate desert village of his birth, filled with nostalgia for his childhood home and burning with the conviction that the place can be remade, better, with the technology he has learned of during his absence. The theme of the mingling of old land and newer technology, and the ways the latter offers both respite from and barrier against the former, is signalled in the story's evocative opening lines:
The acrid scent of burning dung carried easily on the dry wind. Raphel Ka'Korum breathed once, deeply, tasting memory, then fastened his electrostatic scarf over his face.
In his time away, Raphel has become a Pasho, one of an educated class who are beautifully described as being "like dandelion seeds", drifting pockets of knowledge. A seed, of course, needs water to germinate, and it is this that Raphel hopes to offer the village: he carries within him the expertise needed to tap water sources deep underground. Not entirely surprisingly, Raphel proves naive and the villagers - chief among them his formidable grandfather Gawar ("a withered skinny man who wore his red robes cut open so that the virile white fur of his bony chest tufted out for all to see") - intractable.
But Bacigalupi resists making this a simple conflict, whether that be backwards villagers versus improving modernity, or life-affirming tradition versus soulless city. Both Raphel's and Gawar's positions have constructive and destructive elements in them; moreover, in Bacigalupi's best characterisation in the collection, both of them come to vivid life through combative conversations in which they share the memories that make them who they are. To many of the villagers, Raphel and his apparently benign desire to bring them drinking water is no longer Jai, no longer one of them. While the Jai certainly do not shun all technology, individuals like Gawar are suspicious of anything that will make Jai life easier, because they fear it will open them to the same vulnerability that they have exploited in others, in the past; moreover, Jai identity is bound up in hardship, and in the hardness that it creates:
"The Jai control our own own destinies. We are not the dirty Kai who choose slavery and have no words. We bathe every morning, charge our sonics in the afternoon, and write dust epitaphs for our enemies under the stars."
The story's ending complicates things further, effectively deconstructing both what Raphel is prepared to do to bring 'progress', and also the ways in which cultural clashes escalate, and become essentialised, as much through small acts as larger ones. Along with 'Yellow Card Man', this is probably the strongest entry in the collection.
Two of the other stories explore interfaces of humanity and technology through some judicious deployment of the grotesque. 'The Fluted Girl' (2003) is not so much a story as an extended exercise in balancing beauty and horror through a single crescendo of imagery. It deals with twin sisters adopted from poor parents by a wealthy patron, Belari, whose absolute power over his charges is written into the contours of their young bodies: fed medication to arrest their growth and subject to repeated modification through surgery, the girls are remade into Belari's very literal instruments:
No one noticed when the fluted girls took their places on the center dais. They were merely oddities, pale angels, entwined. Lidia put her mouth to her sister's throat, feeling her pulse threading rapidly under her white, white skin. It throbbed against her tongue as she sought out the tiny bore hole in her sister's body. She felt the wet touch of Nia's tongue on her own throat, nestling into her flesh like a small mouse seeking comfort.
Lidia stilled herself, waiting for the attention of the people, patient and focused on her performance. She felt Nia breathe, her lungs expanding inside the frail cage of her chest. Lidia took her own breath. They began to play, first her own notes, running out through unstopped keys in her flesh, and then Nia's notes beginning as well. The open sound, haunting moments of breath, pressed through their bodies. [...]
Lidia's hands found the keys to her sister, her tongue touching Nia's throat once more. Her fingers ran along the knuckles of Nia's spine, finding the clarinet within her, stroking keys. She pressed the warm breath of herself into her sister and she felt Nia breathing into her. Nia's sound was dark and melancholy, her own tones, brighter, higher, ran in counterpoint, a slowly developing story of forbidden touch.
As the show goes on, it becomes uncomfortably clear - as signalled by the phrase "forbidden touch" - that what the girls have been (re)created for is part music, part pornography. They perform "a choregraphy of lust", whose climax for the eager, privileged audience is the "spectacle of naked youth and music intertwined". As both fantastica and as a commentary on the commodification of female bodies, the effect is disturbing:
Suddenly, Nia wrenched at Lidia's shift and Lidia's fingers tore away Nia's own. They stood revealed, pale elfin creatures of music. The guests around them gasped as the notes poured out brighter now, unmuffled by clinging clothes. The girls' musical graftings shone: cobalt boreholes in their spines, glinting stops and keys made of brass and ivory that ran along their fluted frames and contained a hundred possible instruments within the structure of their bodies.
If 'The Fluted Girl' is delicately grotesque, 'The People of Sand and Slag' (2004) shoots straight for the bathos, with its collection of cheerfully oblivious future humans and the dog that they unwittingly abuse. As Niall points out, in many ways this is a thematic counterpart to 'Pop Squad'; both stories rely for their shock and effectiveness on close-in point-of-view narration, from characters utterly immersed in a world - and a worldview - diametrically opposed to our own. Unlike 'Pop Squad', though, which starts brilliantly but gradually loses its nerve, 'The People of Sand and Slag' sustains its affect throughout, perhaps helped by the fact that the whole thing is so unabashedly over-the-top. So we begin with the dog sinking its teeth into one character's arm; the character's reaction, though, is not alarm or pain, but amused detachment from the sensations of his body:
Jaak laughed. His bleeding stopped. "Damn. Check that out." He lifted his arm until the animal dangled fully out of the stream, dripping. "I got me a pet."
The dog swung from the thick bough of Jaak's arm. It tried to shake his arm once again, but its movements were ineffectual now that it hung off the ground. Even Lisa smiled.
"Must be a bummer to wake up and find out you're at the end of your evolutionary curve."
The dog growled, determined to hang on.
Jaak laughed and drew his monomol knife. "Here you go, doggy." He sliced his arm off, leaving it in the bewildered animal's mouth.
The human - or post-human - characters, who can subsist on sand and industrial waste, and whose enhanced bodies can swiftly regenerate from virtually any damage they sustain, are utterly lacking in empathy. They have no conception of the needs of living creatures who are not them. In their vaguely well-meaning - but easily distracted and unthinkingly destructive - way, they adopt the dog, but they have no idea how to feed it or care for it, or indeed how to avoid accidentally harming it. "I think I might have broken it when I put it in the cage," muses Jaak at one point, watching the suffering dog with more detached curiosity than concern; "It's not moving like it was before. And I heard something snap when I stuffed it in."
While it seems at times as if the presence of the dog might bring some caring instincts out of the post-humans, mostly it leads them to reflect on their own physical superiority - the fact that they could eat the dog, for example, while it is sickened by its attempt to feed on Jaak's arm: "We're the top of the food chain", reflects one. They feel no pity at its struggles, only puzzlement over its deficiencies; in the industrial wasteland of another post-collapse future, so inimical to ordinary life, the dog is unable to adapt and survive as humankind and its technology has:
I watched the dog, standing uncertainly on the beach, sniffing suspiciously at some rusting scrap iron that stuck out of the beach like a giant memory fin. It pawed up a chunk of red plastic rubbed shiny by the ocean and chewed on it briefly, before dropping it. It started licking around its mouth. I wondered if it had poisoned itself again.
"It sure can make you think," I muttered. I fed Lisa another handful of sand. "If someone came from the past, to meet us here and now, what do you think they'd say about us? Would they even call us human?"
Lisa looked at me seriously. "No, they'd call us gods."
There is the tiniest note of unease in the conclusion; having killed and eaten the dog, Jaak reflects that things are much better now that they don't have to worry about the creature hurting itself. But any hint of regret is fleeting, and - unlike in 'Pop Squad' - there is a very strong sense that post-humanity has moved on, for better or for worse, and become other.
The collection's final two stories - 'Softer' (2007) and 'Pump Six' (2008) - are, respectively, a minor retread of familiar themes and a bafflingly forgettable semi-farce. 'Softer' sees Bacigalupi relocate to the polar opposite of his customary settings (shiny, well-to-do suburbia), and dig into a character more overtly sociopathic than anyone else encountered in the collection; the maintenance of the character's emotional detachment from the act that opens the story (he murders his wife) is well done, but the story feels like it has made its point within the first few pages, and everything thereafter is just laying on the mood too thickly. 'Pump Six', meanwhile, revolves around irritating people taking large amounts of drugs and having increasingly stupid conversations; I've already forgotten most of what happened in it.
A strange note on which to end an otherwise extremely strong collection; I look forward, though, to reading more of Bacigalupi's work.