Monday, June 10, 2013

The New New Thing: Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Pasho" (2004) and "The Calorie Man" (2005)

First, I want to note that almost all the stories in Pump Six are long:

  • "Pocketful of Dharma" pp1-24
  • "The Fluted Girl" pp25-48
  • "The People of Sand and Slag" pp49-68 
  • "The Pasho" pp69-92 
  • "The Calorie Man" pp93-122 
  • "The Tamarisk Hunter" pp123-136
  • "Pop Squad" pp137-162 
  • "Yellow Card Man" pp163-196 
  • "Softer" pp197-208
  • "Pump Six" pp209-230
And maybe that's part of my disappointment with them: they take a long time and there's generally one image that pops. Take "The Pasho," which breaks from the formula I previously extracted from Bacigalupi's short stories--"(1) inhuman(e) condition (2) is disrupted by possibility of betterment (3) only for the world to prove much worse"--but still hits hard only at one moment in the long tale.

Here, "The Pasho" is the title of a learned man who has been to the big city in a watery environment; and now he returns to the desert village of his youth, where they still keep the old ways (such as "quaran," which is clearly "quarantine"--one of the hints that this world is post-apocalypse). He's a new man returning to the traditional world, so you'd think the tension is between progress and stasis; but the Pasho's main role is to throttle progress down, so that the changes that are made are considered and manageable.

So it's unclear what's inhumane here: the Pasho's interest in manages progress? Or his traditional grandfather's interest in war? Both seem pretty human and neither seems anywhere as bad as the previous apocalypse. Here's the spoiler: after trying to blend back into the old town-life, the Pasho reveals that his mission is to kill his grandfather, thus preventing a new war, all of which happens in the last page. On one hand, you'd think this structure was a gut-punch surprise. But on the other hand, because of the story's ambiguity, this surprise never becomes as meaningful as a gut-punch, either as tragedy or victory. Now this is a funny complaint to make, and it reminds me of my complaint about the open ending of "The Fluted Girl," but I'm no longer really interested in "Lady or the Tiger?"--I'd like a story to have a POV and take a stand for something. (At least, today I do.)

So, even if "The Pasho" upends the Bacigalupi plot formula, it still focuses a lot of feeling on one particular moment in time that takes a while to get to.

By contrast, "The Calorie Man" seems a little richer, both in the world-building and in the characterization. This is the story of Indian expat Lalji who has left his family--where they may have starved thanks to genetically modified infertile seeds--who lives on the fringes of the energy corporations that now trade in food: the calories from various agri-products go into modified animals for conversion into kinetic energy or stored in springs. For instance, his helper Creo is pretty good with his gun--which has to be pumped up and shoots out spinning disks that don't seem to go as far as bullets. (Any relation to Nerf products is accidental, I'm sure.)

Lalji is hired to ship a scientist who knows how to crack the seeds' infertility problem, which means he's a target by the corporations and the IP police. Naturally, things don't go as planned--Bacigalupi takes seriously the "gun on the mantlepiece" theory of foreshadowing--though there is a semi-hopeful end to this: though the scientist gets kills, he's already created his monopoly-cracking seeds--seeds that are fertile and will mix with other seeds, spreading fertility.

I not only like the mixed-to-happy ending here, but I like the way that Lalji's image of the seeds his family planted gets echoed through the story, as past to run away from and as future hope. I also like the fact that this story deals with something serious about our own time--IP laws and GM food. This story breaks the formula by keeping (1) and (2)--inhumane/strange conditions and promise of betterment--but doesn't pull a switch with (3), the tragic ending. And while Lalji is haunted by his memory of abandoning his family, his condition seems more relatable: not a crippled and exploited worker, but just a guy caught in the middle. That relatability, I hope, makes this story effective.

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