Friday, August 01, 2008

Reader's Response: "Pump Six" by Paolo Bacigalupi

Reader’s Response: “Pump Six” by Paolo Bacigalupi
from Fantasy & Science Fiction September 2008

The first person narrator, Alvarez, has troubles at home. He and his wife Maggie are trying to get pregnant, and Maggie doesn’t seem to be thinking too straight as she uses a lit match to locate a gas leak.

Alvarez has troubles at work, the sewage treatment plant for all of New York City. His fellow employees do no work and simply hang out and bicker all day. When an equipment problem comes up, they call Alvarez to fix it, if they think to even call Alvarez at all. In the course of the story, Alvarez comes to discover that the whole sewage treatment system is on the brink of complete collapse due to lack of maintenance over the course of one hundred years.

The world described in the story is one that is winding down. It appears that human beings may be de-evolving into new hermaphrodic, pack-like race called trogs that does nothing except hang out on the streets and have orgies. Alvarez worries that if he gets his wife pregnant their baby may end up being one of these trogs. Various other descriptions of the water, the lack of availability of certain consumer products (such as bacon), the breakdown the of the university system at Columbia (the students spend all their time on the quad in the nude), all suggest a future of social and genetic decay caused by environmental pollution.

Although the vision of things breaking down is depressing, I found the narrator’s voice to be engaging enough to maintain my empathy and interest. He’s a hard worker, thinks of the needs of others before himself, and endures the company of idiots for the sake of making a living.

My only complaint was some of the repetition of Alvarez’s worries and concerns. I guess the cycles of his griping about his co-employees (notice I don’t call them co-workers), about trying to get Maggie pregnant, and about how he’s stuck with the responsibility of being the only responsible fix-it person in sewage management, are intended to add realism. We all do tend to repeat ourselves when it comes to our everyday complaints. However, I would have preferred a bit of trimming on these points to make the story more concise.

“Pump Six” is an excellent example of the range of science fiction that is being published today. Anyone who thinks the genre is still only about space men and time travel hasn’t been reading the genre in ages. Even so, I would have never expected a story about future sewage treatment, yet it was fascinating and frighteningly plausible.

Bacigalupi’s story highlights the slump in human ingenuity and thus in turn society’s infrastructure that we all witness right here and right now. Food contaminated with E. coli bacteria, bridges collapsing, cranes falling: we face system failure all the time. Who doesn’t fear genetic mutations due to the poisons we have pumped into our environment?
Well, maybe those who are ceasing to think, which is the bigger horror Bacigalupi has illuminated here. There are those we encounter daily at work, in our schools and universities, and in our government who seem to be a thoughtless and ambitionless as Alvarez’s co-employees and as the trogs in the streets. One wonders at times if we are seeing the inevitable decay of our species.

Yet there are glimmers of hope, as Bacigalupi portrays in the final pages of the story. Alvarez appears to be a human with the ability to grow and learn, so all is not lost. There must be others.

I forced myself to look at the good things. People were still out and about, walking to their dance clubs, going out to eat, wandering uptown or downtown to see their parents . . . Lots of things were still working . . . I couldn’t let my myself wonder if that baby was going to turn out like the college kids in the quad. Not everything was broken.
As if the prove it, the subway ran all the way to my stop for a change. (41-42).

Even though most of the conflicts in the story remain unresolved, the tale ends on a tone of hope, suggesting we might be able to fix some of the problems we are creating for ourselves. But we need a few more good men, like Alvarez, who are willing and able to keep thinking to pull us out the muck. I hope they’re out there.

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