Pump Six and other stories, by Paolo Bacigalupi

This book consists of ten short stories, some of which take place in the same fictional universe, a universe the author explored in the novel “The Wind up Girl”, a novel that was awarded, amongst other awards, a Nebula Award.

In this collection we find both “The Yellow Card Man” (nominated for a Hugo Award) and “The Calorie Man” (Winner of a Sturgeon Award), both of them in the same fictional universe as “The Wind up Girl”. The stories explored in the collections all have some common denominators, and an element of man versus the world is present in many of the texts. This is a common enough phenomenon in much high ranking modern science fiction and it is done with great skill by Bacigalupi. If you have read a lot of science fiction, you will probably recognize a few of the base themes here. Ecological disasters, capital interest ahead of the greater good, dehumanization and so on, but I find the perspectives to be refreshing in this collection. The use of personal narratives is very efficiently used to convey the experience of the brave new worlds explored, without ever leading us into the trap of over explaining the settings. Bacigalupi tentatively explores his worlds, through characters that seldom take the role of “reporter from the future”. This is something some readers of science fiction loves, and some are not found of, I find myself in the first category, mainly because I feel it creates a more believable narrative in most stories. One of the stories in the text is not in the science fiction genre; “Softer” is a dark little tale, about a life changing event, typical of the classical short story, though with an unusual point of view, and an unusual conclusion.

So, onwards to characters. Most of the protagonists are male, but there are some female ones as well, yey diversity! Most of the protagonists are not in a position of power; many are counted amongst the lowest class of citizens in their societies. From the “water tics” in a future US with serious water shortages, to the “yellow card” refugees, fleeing after a failed Chinese expansion southeastwards. This puts the protagonists at the mercy of the systems they live within, and it gives the author the opportunities to explore the consequences of a world where human life often is a common commodity, while resources are scarce. There is a global perspective in the collection, we get stories from both the west and the east, and the world described in each story is quite recognizable as the world we know, in a not so distant future.

There are some variations between the individual short stories, in two of them “The Fluted Girl” and “Pasho” I’m reminded of dark fairytales, something I have sometimes come across in science fiction before. The stories are still classical short stories, in terms of form, and to some extent style, but the settings, and conflicts within each text are reminiscent of fairytales.

All the stories in this collection are structured close to the classic ideal of the short story, there is a limited number of characters, the timespan of the stories is quite short, and many of them involves moments of change and/or some form of enlightenment for the characters. One notable exception is “The people of Sand and Slag”, in which the reader is expecting some form of dramatic turnaround, and is left intentionally bereft. That story and “Pop Squad” is probably the most gut-wrenching of the lot of them. If I have to take rate the stories I would say that “Yellow Card Man” and “Pop Squad” ranks among my favorites. I did not love “Softer”, mainly because the story seems more of an afterthought, not in tune with the collection as a whole, and actually “Pump Six”, because it might be a little too ambitious for it’s short form.

It I were to say something about a common theme to these stories, I would be forced to move toward a common joke in literary circuits; the stories are about the “human experience” (all literature can, at some level, be said to be about the “human experience”), but this is what is explored here. The characters we meet are painfully human, with all its consequences. Human adaptation keeps coming up as a central theme as well, and the questions if human adaptation is really such a good thing is very present, all though never answered.

To sum up, I would say this is a highly relevant and interesting collection. It will probably not make you happy, but it will make you think and it will affect you. The language is solid, but it is never unnecessarily embellished, it is quite accessible and always appropriate for the story told. The dystopian aspects will be familiar to all who read a bit of science fiction, but there is still something new and fresh about the narratives presented in “Pump Six and other stories”.

“A memory of light”, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

“A memory of light” is the fourteenth book, in the series “Wheel of Time” by (originally) Robert Jordan. Brandon Sanderson’s involvement stems from the sad fact that Jordan died before he could finish the series. Jordan had outlined and drafted the plot all the way to the end, but the final writing of the last three books fell to Brandon, whom had previously achieved quite a bit of acclaim for the “Mistborn”-series. The last three books were originally supposed to be published as one volume, but the sheer bulk of it made this impossible. This, unfortunately, affects the three individual volumes quite a bit, and especially “A memory of light”.

For those of you who know the series, the characters of the final volume will be familiar, and so will the structure of the narrative. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, it consists of hundreds of narratives, all of them giving their own points of view of the rise of, and conclusion to, a battle between good and evil, darkness and light. So, pretty classic fantasy fare.

The world Jordan has created is quite clearly inspired by the Middle Ages, but with the inclusion of magic a lot of room for improvisation is made. We are dealing with quite a few familiar bastions of power, such as kingdoms, countries and merchant guilds, but there is also the powerful union of Aes Sedai(female channelers, women with abilities within magic), represented by the White tower, and evil groups such as “The Chosen”, dark wizards, working for “The Dark One”, the evil entity of the series. The concept of power is a recurring theme within the books, both the cost of power, and the often dangerous potential of it is frequently used within the different storylines, this means a lot of narratives concerning characters that hold a position of power, and fewer narratives within the ranks of “common folks”, especially as the series progress. The main characters we follow, both within “A memory of Light” and the series as a whole, are Rand Al’Thor, Mathrim Cauthron, Perrin Arbaya, Ewgene Al’Vere, Nyave Al’Vere, Lan Mandrogan and Moraine Sedai. The five first ones we follow from they are young, growing up in the rural and mostly forgotten region of “The Two Rivers”, dreaming of adventure, but happy and innocent all the same. They are then pulled in to the conflict between good and evil, and end up holding pivotal positions, all of which are crucially necessary for the possible survival of their world.

“A Memory of Light” is the climax of the series, it is a book I would advise against reading on its own, that simply does not work. This is more of a final, eight hundred page chapter, than a book in its own rights. There will be spoilers in the coming part of this review. You are hereby warned.

So, at this point in the series, all that is left is the final battle -always referred to as “The Final Battle” from the first book and onwards, because it has been foretold in prophesy. There sure is a lot of battles in the book, our heroes are now in positions of power, so they command armies, giving us a potential for a rather complete narrative, describing and observing the entire conflict up until it’s final climax, Rand Al’Thor, “The Dragon Reborn”‘s final struggle with the dark one.

Rand is the protagonist, and has defined the plot of all the previous books, despite sharing the narrative with all of the other characters we get more than a glancing introduction to. In this book Rand will spend most of his time (about two thirds of the book) in a cave, fighting the dark one, in his mind. This is somewhat unfortunate for the story told. Sanderson tries his best, but the story is massive and unruly, and the plot seems to be struggling against his best efforts to push it to its conclusion.

We start with several different battlefronts, and several fractions of power follow the fractions into uneasy cooperation, and the number of fronts gets narrowed to two massive battles, in which every surviving character is eventually involved. Did I mention that this series has literally hundreds of different characters, all of which are allowed to have their own narrative at times in the series? This causes the narrative structure of the book to be far more erratic and stuttering than any of the previous books. We barely have time to get involved with one characters storyline before we are transferred to the next, and then the next, and then back again, and then someone we haven’t met for a couple of books and so on, and on and on… This is quite frustrating, and since the main character is holed up in a cave, with two of the other “original cast members”, Moraine and Nyave, that becomes a story within the story, since that battle is very different from the other two. That is a battle of minds and magic, while the other two are battles of weapons, and the many many people and evil entities wielding them. I get that there is an attempt of creating some “Eye of the storm” imagery at play here, but the rapid changing of narratives will cause most readers to be very preoccupied with the (always) very dramatic situation left unresolved in each previous narrative, and somewhat annoyed to be dragged away into another storyline where tension is just starting to rise.

Another problem is that there are large amounts of shortcuts used, and a lot of the plot devices trigger the annoyed response of “Well, if they could do this, why didn’t they to this earlier in the series? This would have changed everything if it had been used in book ten…” That is not good. Several characters also develop their abilities at a staggering pace, considering they spent 12 000 pages to get the skills they start book fourteen with. There is quite a bit of “Deus ex machina” used here, and most of it is more obvious than it should be.

One of the great challenges of writing this type of literature is keeping so many storylines going in the same direction, and intertwining them when it seems natural to do so. This is something that has been a bit of a problem with the series as a whole. Robert Jordan was a very talented writer, but his main interest always seemed to be creating the world of “Wheel of Time”. The different cultures, with their traditions, religions, customs, clothing, personal style choices, culinary preferences and legal systems are explored and explained in almost painful detail, all through the series. This means that at times the environment of the story is much more interesting than the storyline taking place within it, and it also causes us (and the author) to have an enormous amounts of different groups to deal with in the end, and looking at the last book, it has ended up being an example of biting of more than you can chew.

The characters are also a bit problematic. They start out young, and in many ways this is also an attempt to write several intertwined coming of age stories, but this is only partially successful. We end up in a universe where several of the most powerful people in the world seem frighteningly emotionally immature, while still being staggeringly good at doing complex tasks such as leading kingdoms and armies. This does not plague all the characters involved, some are grown up when we start the story, and a few are successful in growing up as the time passes, but a lot of them have a lot of growing up to do at the start of book fourteen. Having a love life with complications reminiscent of failed high school romances is probably not recommended when the faith of the world rests solely on your leadership skills in the final battle between good and evil.

Sanderson solves that problem by ignoring it, and simply having everyone, without explanation, put away most of their emotions in the entirety of the book. This sound like a good idea, and it would have been so, six or seven books ago. Again a case of “Why did they not to this in book so and so? That would have solved a lot of problems.” The kind of problems that often caused the death of semi- important characters.

This was supposed to be a short review, what was I thinking… Back to it, battles! The battle scenes are quite good, and my there is a lot of death going around, even a few important characters die this time around. There are a lot of technical details of battlefields positions and so on at first (Mathrim Cauthron, a main character and many a readers favorite in the series has the memories of every great general that ever lived in his head), so there is a lot of strategy, and dialogue of strategy going on. I like this, I know not everyone does, but it has always been one of my favorite parts of the series. Unfortunately it takes a lot of time, and Sanderson only has a little over eight hundred pages to wrap this up, luckily it is decided to keep the strategy a secret about half way through the battles. Because the evil minions have spies everywhere and can get to people in their dreams. Not the really important characters of course (why?), only the quite important ones, like the generals (not Mat), responsible for the strategy. So one man(Mat again) is now responsible for strategy, and it’s a secret, and he only has marginally more of a narrative presence than everyone else, but just ignore it, look, people sticking each other with spears and other sharp things! Ignore the plot holes, ignore that the shadow(the bad guys) are suddenly given an entirely new ally, never before seen in the series, in a tight spot, no time to explore their motives(they are an entire people apparently), just let the good guys kill them all, after nearly being defeated of course.

So much frustration. This is not a good book, and I am sorry about that. It is not a bad book, it’s an ok book, but it should have been much better. This has been a long journey, I myself have been following the series for fifteen years, and I wanted more than this for its ending. I find myself feeling more grief for the loss (death) of certain characters than the characters in the book seems to do. There are some bright spots in the first half of the book, especially the story of Lan Mandrogan, one of the strongest characters in the series, shows a nice balance between the weight of power and the responsibility for lives lost in conflict. It is interesting that a character that has been described time and time again across the series as emotionally closed off, ends up being one of the more nuanced and interesting characters to follow. This is more and more lost as the story plows ahead. In the desperate struggle to make the plot come to a (screeching) holt Sanderson loses sight of the experience of the final battle itself, the devastating realities of all out total war, somewhere in the bloodshed and I think many readers will feel a bit cheated. After waiting this long, the expectations for the finale of the series were high, and I do not think “A Memory of Light” delivers on the promise of the series.

It is with a heavy heart I say my goodbyes to the world and characters of “The Wheel of Time”. There are many imperfections, but of all the universes in the world of fantasy literature, there are few I have found as fascinating, mesmerizing and rich. Thank you Robert Jordan, for going for broke and being so incredibly ambitious when creating your world, it will be a source of joy, dreams and inspiration for generations to come. You might have written a story that could not be successfully concluded, but that does not mean that it should not have been told. Goodbye, and thanks for all the magic.