At some point in the next few years, Paolo Bacigalupi is going to put together a very good collection of very grubby futures. It will not be a book for the faint-hearted. For starters, Bacigalupi’s stories, almost all of which are set in worlds coping with one or more varieties of ecological collapse, from the desertified midwest of “The Tamarisk Hunter” (2006) to the post-petroleum bioeconomy of “The Calorie Man” (2005), typically need unpacking. This is not to say they are linguistically complex—Bacigalupi’s prose can be striking, but it tends to be fluid rather than ornate—but more that they tend to be narrated by characters who have no reason to explain their assumptions to us. All science fiction stories offer that particular pleasure of unfamiliarity—the challenge of learning the ropes—but Bacigalupi’s stories are often more unfamiliar than most. At the start of “The People of Sand and Slag” (2004), for instance, the characters jump from a hovering airship and land in a pile of breaking bones with no suggestion that this is any more remarkable than the bleak weather. By the time they’re eating sand for dinner, if not before, we’ve worked out that we’re in a world where humans have been rendered virtually invincible through the judicious use of nanotech, but for a few paragraphs we’re in free-fall. Moreover, Bacigalupi can be stunningly unsentimental: where similar technology in a story by Cory Doctorow might lead to a post-scarcity utopia, in “The People of Sand and Slag,” with no need to preserve the land for their own benefit, humanity has allowed all to fall into ruin.
“Pop Squad,” from the October/November issue of F&SF, is in a similar vein. It reads like the work of a writer playing chicken with the abyss. I don’t usually have much time for spoiler warnings, on the grounds that if a piece of prose fiction can be truly spoiled by knowing what happens, then it’s probably not a very good example of the form. But there are a couple of first-rate jolts in “Pop Squad”; I’m going to have to talk about them, because they’re integral to the story’s success or failure, but it would be unfair to deny anyone the chance to experience them first-hand. So here’s the warning: to say what I want to say about the story I’m going to talk about all of it, up to and including the ending. If you were planning to read it, skip this post for now, and come back when you’re done.
For everyone who’s left, here’s the opening paragraph:
The familiar stench of unwashed bodies, cooked food, and shit washes over me as I come through the door. Cruiserlights flicker through the blinds, sparkling in rain and illuminating the crime scene with strobes of red and blue fire. A kitchen. A humid mess. A chunky woman huddles in the corner, clutching closed her nightgown. Fat thighs and swaying breasts under stained silk. Squad goons crowding her, pushing her around, making her sit, making her cower. Another woman, young-looking and pretty, pregnant and black-haired, is slumped against the opposite wall, her blouse spackled with spaghetti remains. Screams from the next room: kids.
My comments about unfamiliarity above notwithstanding, this scene, and the confident rhythm with which it’s sketched, are basically familiar. The narrator is a police officer, possibly slightly shady, and he’s visiting a slumland crime scene. We don’t know the nature of the crime, or why the kids are screaming, but that’s ok; these are things we expect to not know. We do know how this sort of procedural unfolds. And we could easily be in the here-and-now. The narrator’s judgement on the women (“It amazes me that women can end up like this, seduced so far down into gutter life that they arrive here, fugitives from everyone who would have kept them and held them and loved them and let them see the world outside”) has a depressing familiarity about it. The only indications that we’re in an elsewhen are a passing reference to wallscreens and, a few paragraphs later, a suggestion of high-tech uniformity in the flat’s design.
Needless to say, this opening is a trap. In retrospect the signs are there: in the way the narrator’s partner hustles the women, but not their children, out the door, for instance, and in the reference to a toy dinosaur as funny “because when you think about it, a dinosaur toy is really extinct twice.” But even on a second reading, we’re not ready for what happens next. The narrator stands in front of the children:
I pull out my Grange. Their heads kick back in successive jerks, bang bang bang down the line, holes appearing on their foreheads like paint and their brains spattering out the back. Their bodies flip and skid on the black mirror floor. They land in jumbled piles of misaligned limbs. For a second, gunpowder burn makes the stench bearable.
With the possible exception of some of Joe Hill’s work, I can’t recall having experienced such a spectacularly effective drop-kick of readerly sympathies for years. We can’t see it coming, because Bacigalupi plays the lead-in straight. But he gives us just enough hints to develop, in the aftermath, a suspicion—which is quickly confirmed—that this isn’t a depiction of a maniac, it is normal. This is his job. While we’re in free-fall, the narrator is going up in the world. Literally: in a vertiginous paragraph he rushes from the slum out of the urban sprawl, out of the jungle, up one hundred and eighty-eight stories of an immense spire, where his girlfriend Alice is playing lead viola in a classical concert. We follow in his wake, dazed. The music is beautiful; notes “spill like water and burst like ice flowers”. The contrast with the scene we have just left could not be more brutal. And it sinks in that the trap has sprung: we are caught in a world we don’t understand with a reliable narrator we absolutely cannot trust.
Inevitably, the story calms down a bit. We start to get more information. Details here and there allow us to build up a picture of how the world is and, maybe, how it got to be that way. It’s a darker, more damaged world than our own; it has warmed, and New York has flooded—hence the spires and the slums. And, via the revelation that Alice’s concert was much like a world-record challenge, an attempt to knock the acknowledged virtuoso from his pedestal, we learn that this is a world of immortals, which in turn suggests a reason for the kid-killing. The price of eternal life is voluntary sterility. But for the people at the concert, the narrator’s job is remote, its implications abstract:
Alice makes a face of distaste. “Can you imagine trying to perform Telogo without rejoo? We wouldn’t have had the time. Half of us would have been past our prime, and we’d have needed understudies, and then the understudies would have had to find understudies. Fifteen years. And these women throw it all away. How can they throw away something as beautiful as Telogo?”
I said that Bacigalupi was playing chicken with the abyss, and I think passages like the above make the point. The incomprehension demonstrated of the true choice being made is chilling, the more so because the authorial handling of the conversation is so deadpan: despite the yawning gap between the story’s world and ours, we are never nudged towards an opinion. The facts of the case speak for themselves. Combined with the memory of the narrator’s murderous actions, we are left thoroughly unsettled.
Unfortunately for the story, however, Bacigalupi ultimately blinks first. In the second half of “Pop Squad”, the narrator makes two more home visits. In the first, he kills a baby—but this time the kill is less because he believes in his job, and more because he can’t work out what else to do with the child. It’s more instinctive, an attempt to ignore the doubts growing inside him. He attempts to rationalise the actions of the women his squad tracks down, arguing to himself that “the whole breeding thing is an anachronism—twenty-first century ritual torture we don’t need anymore”, but we can see that it’s not working. (As an aside, we only ever see single mothers: the men, it is implied, are cowards who prefer to participate in the process from afar, by donation, rather than risk pop squad retribution themselves.) To quash the nag in the back of his mind, he sets out to track down the supplier of the toy dinosaur he saw at the start of the story. These days, it seems, they’re marketed as “collectibles,” at which point we understand why it was extinct twice: once as a dinosaur, once as a toy. The third home visit occurs when the narrator decides to track down a woman he bumps into in the collectible shop, and is the climactic scene of the story.
There are good things about this confrontation. It is tense. The inevitable cute child is not unrealistically or unbearably cute. The scene doesn’t break character, and indeed continues to reveal character: confronted with an obviously fertile woman, the narrator responds with involuntary sexual attraction that we can understand (and find somewhat disturbing, admittedly), but which he is only confused by. “She sags,” he observes, “she’s round, she’s breasty and hippy and sloppy, I can barely sit because my pants are so tight.” The mother doesn’t waste time asking the narrator why because she already knows, even if we don’t. The incomprehension is all on the narrator’s side. And the mother’s outrage is delivered with a conviction that frees it from cliche:
She looks at me, hard. Angry. “You know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking we need something new. I’ve been alive for one hundred and eighteen years and I’m thinking that it’s not just about me. I’m thinking I want a baby and I want to see what she sees today when she wakes up and what she’ll find and see that I’ve never seen before because that’s new. Finally, something new. I love seeing things through her little eyes and not through dead eyes like yours.”
But at the end of the confrontation, the narrator walks away, leaving mother and child unharmed. “And for the first time in a long time,” he tells us, “the rain feels new.” We should be relieved: this sort of awakening is exactly the sort of ending we should want. It’s where the story has been obviously heading from around the half-way mark. The problem is that although seeing the dinosaur was clearly the trigger, it’s not clear why. Why does the narrator wake up now, why this case above all others?
In “The People of Sand and Slag,” the plot revolves around the discovery of a dog, an animal previously thought extinct. It has no place in the new world, and the characters don’t know what to do with it or how to care for it; in a beautifully alien sentiment, one of them describes it as being “as fragile as a rock.” So at the end of the story, they eat it. Bacigalupi allows his protagonists the hint of a realisation that something valuable might have been lost, but that’s all: they never wake up to the state of the world. The narrator of “Pop Squad” does, but he seems to do so only because to not do so would be unthinkable. He wakes because morality demands it, not because the story does. The result is that the obvious skill employed in the first half of the story in creating the world, the situation, and the character feels somewhat wasted. Bacigalupi has done such a good job of interrelating the three that to short-change one is to short-change them all, and what could have been truly haunting becomes a momentary discomfort, not so unfamiliar after all. “Pop Squad”, we realise, is just another story about the development of conscience in a fallen world. We don’t need to struggle out of the trap; we are let out and, despite the narrator’s claims, it feels quite the opposite of new.