7.06.2009

"Pump Six" and "Morality"

Speculative fiction, and science fiction in particular, poses that all-important question: What if?

We briefly discussed Stephen King's short story "Night Surf" today in literature class, and a perceptive student asked a good question in light of the story's content: where does the line between science fiction and science grow blurry?

In "Night Surf," the world has been laid low by King's famous Captain Trips flu virus, the venerable A6. And while H1N1 hasn't quite been the calamity it was introduced as months ago, we've seen cycles of horrific flu strains that have killed large human populations in the past.

That question about the intersection between prose speculation and the reality of what happens on a day-to-day basis is explored to great effect in Paolo Bacigalupi's story "Pump Six." This story is about devolution. It's about living in a dystopic hell of our own creation. It's about the loss of learning and the institutions that foster creativity and intellect.

It's a hell of a cynical yarn and a truly well-written one at that.

Bacigalupi's prose style is accessible and crisp. In some passages, his ability to convey altered consciousness in noisy club is poetic:

A girl in torn knee socks and a nun's habit was mewling in the bathroom when Maggie found us and pulled us apart and took me on the floor with people walking around us and trying to use the stainless steel piss troughs, but then Max grabbed me and I couldn't tell if we'd been doing it on the bar and if that was the problem or if I was just taking a leak in the wrong place but Max kept complaining about bubbles in his gin and riot a riot a RIOT that he was going to have on his hands if these Effy freaks didn't get their liquor and he shoved me down under the bar where tubes come out of vats of gin and tonic and it was like floating inside the guts of an octopus with the waves of the kettle drums booming away above me.

That passage is so well-suited to the narrative that I recall reading it immediately twice on my first pass through the tale. Our story is told in the first person, following Travis Alvarez on his quest to keep the sewage pumps from failing and flooding the over-populated city with excrement.

The landscape is littered with subhuman groups of trogs, ape-like simpletons who roam the streets, begging and fornicating. These literal symbols of devolution show up at opportune moments to underline the story's central message: culture is breaking down.

As pump six fails, Alvarez sets out to learn about a repair. He finds that the original creators of the machine have been out of business for decades (the old saw here "They don't build them like they used to" is crucial to the story's theme), so he sets out to find some engineers to help him out. Unfortunately, Columbia University is in ruins, its smattering of privileged students just as base as the trogs humping in the alleys.

This story was chilling. A taut, tight narrative that moves well, it marks Bacigalupi as a talent to watch in the sci-fi field. His theories are not without controversy, though anyone making an argument against the dangers of global populations run amok is missing the point, I think.

Stephen King's "Morality" is another big-idea story. It plays with topics such as the relative degrees of sin, depravity and experience. It's mostly interested in toying with perceptions of internal conflict and how our actions speak for our character (both reflecting our character and revising it).

Postulate: would you punch a four-year-old in the mouth for $200,000?

Would you do it if you were broke and living in an historic recession?

Would you do it if you didn't have any job prospects?

Would you do it if you knew you wouldn't be caught?

Do any of those questions really impact your answer to the postulate?

3 comments:

Karen from Mentor said...

That would be five resounding "no's" for me....

I enjoy observing people who debate the science of star trek....and yes, I KNOW these people...*sigh*...

Jennie said...

What's funny was I was thinking about this the other day. I was recalling reading "Night Surf", from your class. It made me go.....hmmmmmm. I'm still learning from your class and I'm no longer in it, lol.

Daniel W. Powell said...

Evening, Jennie,

Good to hear from you. I hope things are well (give my best to Sam and to Sammy).

Yeah, "Night Surf" tends to stay with you. I really admire that story--simple but affecting. It delivers that single emotion that Poe always went on about...

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