Review of “Pump Six” (2008)


Paolo Bacigalupi (writer).

Don’t look so surprised. You can’t say someone of your caliber never noticed.

It makes sense to me that Travis Alvarez, the protagonist of this dystopian narrative, could personally live through the brilliantly imagined cornucopian-chemical apocalypse and not piece it together. It is probably true, as Mercati conjectures in the story, that Alvarez had a bad teacher in mathematics at his high school. More importantly, Alvarez gave up; he didn’t actually flunk out. Later on, he learned patience and a work ethic from Mercati, but by then it was too late.

Alvarez’s role of the whiz is similar to Sam’s in Brazil (1985). Clearly he is a victim like his peers, but in doing his work without complaint or ambition, he is also a perpetrator like Sam, letting New York slide toward the abyss through tolerance and lack of introspection. Maybe pollution impaired his facility for mathematics in particular. Irrationally convinced of his own more general inferiority and locked into Mercati’s altruistic victim complex, it took Alvarez nine years to finally reach anagnorisis. There is an epic quality to that development, like Gandalf searching for data on Bilbo’s ring for seventeen years, or Francis Wayland Thurston puzzling over “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926). The difference is that Alvarez’s discovery maps more neatly onto real phenomena like climate change.

The story feels like “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937) run through the intimate alien modernism and high New-Wave emotion of “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death” (1973). As in “Pop Squad” (2006), the author is careful to show the seductive side of his dystopia, and as usual, he writes emically and from below. The result is far more powerful than Idiocracy (2006). It doesn’t feel like it could actually happen, but it’s wonderfully pure SF all the same, and less stylized than the Eloi of The Time Machine (1895). For a non-seductive perspective on a very similar development, perhaps in the same universe, see “Small Offerings” (2007).

References here: Dorohedoro (2020).

text fiction