Review of “Pop Squad” (2006)


Paolo Bacigalupi (writer).

Nighttime. More dark-of-night encounters with illicit motherhood. The babies are everywhere, popping up like toadstools after rain. I can’t keep up with them.

The setting is similar to Altered Carbon (2002) but with a more limited form of immortality and less edgy cynicism. It’s flawed as a dystopia. It’s clear that all legal rejuvenation treatments prevent fertilization and that this is the result of a mandatory additive, not a side effect, but it’s not clear why stopping treatment is all you need to do to restore fertility, or where legal children come from. Organizing a “pop squad” that shoots all children on site is an untenable, Judge Dredd (1977) solution.

The protagonist thinks to himself that with rejuvenation, humanity has “already won” and can stop evolution, but that’s too flimsy an excuse. Bacigalupi does not provide the level of cultural estrangement in his worldbuilding that would be necessary to explain how there can be lots of overtime work for pop squads, a high rate of recidivism, and yet no sign of a vocal “pro-life” movement. There is a feminist movement that demands doing the detective work necessary to capture the fathers too, but that doesn’t make sense either; with ubiquitous rejuvenation treatments and such harsh policies on reproduction, the government would have everybody’s DNA on file to identify the fathers right away. Harder-to-reverse sterilization practices would have made more sense, and immunity to the cuteness of babies akin to the calliagnosia of “Liking What You See: A Documentary” (2002) would have been more sfnal, but there’s none of that. Instead, the second-to-last scene shows that the protagonist’s animal instincts are intact, only superficially suppressed like Death in Venice (1912).

The story is redeemed by Bacigalupi’s language and his more credible depiction of the perks. “There’s something wonderful”, the narrator thinks, “about peace and silence and sea breezes twisting the curtains on the balcony.” His immortal life, in a civilization actively working to restore the climate and preserve biodiversity, is not empty in the manner of more typical dystopias. In a meaningful way, his civilization is rich and forward-looking, even wise. That’s clever and refreshing, but it certainly doesn’t explain why this civilization tries to solve the population problem by shooting children with 12 mm pistols. It does explain why the killers aren’t outcasts within their own society, but the story’s utopian and dystopian aspects don’t gel. It’s not as bad as “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973), but it has the same basic flaw of thinking that any better society must conceal some horror by the author’s fiat.

References here: “Pump Six” (2008), “Pop Squad” (2021).

text fiction