Story of the week: "Pump Six" by Paolo Bacigalupi

Monsters and Critics just published my review of Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi. Without giving too much away, I believe this is the best speculative fiction short story collection since Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others (but you can read the review for more on all that).

My intention here, though, is to highlight one of the stories in the collection: the previously unpublished title story of "Pump Six." The story focuses on Travis Alvarez, a maintenance man who helps keep the sewage pumps going in a future New York City. Because of ever-present pollution, the intelligence of the city's residents has plummeted to incredible lows. Even Alvarez himself is not an intelligent man, being at best average by today's terms. However, he has enough knowledge and concern left to know it is vitally important that the city's ancient sewage pumps keep running, or else a toxic mess will kill millions. But most New Yorkers don't see what harm can come from a few backed up toilets. Even his girlfriend, who almost blows up their apartment searching for a gas leak with a lit match, tells Alvarez not to take his job so seriously. Why worry about things like sewage pumps when there are so many parties and drugs to be had?

In many ways "Pump Six" is a reverse echo of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, a 21st century warning about how societies exist because people like Alvarez do their part to maintain them. Just as in Huxley's novel, everyone Alvarez encounters seems to care little beyond using sex and drugs to tune themselves into nothingness. While Alvarez is attracted to this sensual oblivion, he also knows what's at stake and that, tragically, he's not equal to the task thrust upon him. Still, reaching for that hallmark element of humanity--the endless struggle against hopeless odds--Alvarez strives to find a way to keep the pumps going.

Bacigalupi has previously been nominated for a number of Hugo and Nebula awards. If there is any justice in the world, "Pump Six" will be the story that wins him one of those coveted awards.