Friday, February 8, 2013

The New New Thing: Paolo Bacigalupi's "Pocketful of Dharma"

Here's another ongoing but intermittent project: instead of rediscovering some older works, I'll be reading some newer stories to see how they succeed or fail. First up, Paolo Bacigalupi's first published short story, "Pocketful of Dharma."

Unfortunately, this story was first published in 1999, which makes it less interesting for the purposes of finding what's being published and read now. "Pocketful of Dharma" comes across as a pleasant diversion: no great shakes in the plot or characterization department, it leans heavily on the vision of a bio-punk China, with a giant luxury building being grown in the middle of Chengdu, while everyone else gets coated with soot and smoke. This is arch-cyberpunk, down to the recording of a person's personality in a tiny datacube. That's the Mcguffin of the piece, with a Dalai Lama's mind being a bargaining chip for some trade commission, wanted by Chinese authorities, Tibetan rebels, American businessmen, and the triads. And it falls into the hands of crippled orphan Wang Jun, a kid from the provinces who begs in the city.

The story is primarily told from Jun's POV, with one notable exception; and since Jun is a dumb pawn, we don't get a super-clear idea of what's really at stake here. The only thing we know is that Jun is living a hellish day-by-day existence, which may be why he feels some kinship with the frozen personality of the Dalai Lama. Like I said, the characterization here could be more explicit; and the fact that the narrator breaks from Jun's consciousness once makes it seem arbitrary not to dip into anyone else's mind at any point.

Still, the image of a crippled beggar climbing down the outside of a spongy living building is worth the price of admission.

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