Short Story Sunday: ‘Pocketful of Dharma’ by Paolo Bacigalupi

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I bought this as part of the Humble Bundle months ago. Beacuse it was a lot of books at once it was a while before I got around to reading it. I’ve been dipping in and out of it over the past few weeks. Paolo Bacigalupi is a multi-award winning sci-fi author and it’s easy to see why. This is his debut collection of short stories and ‘Pocketful of Dharma’ was first published in 1999. His stories are original, deep, multi-layered and political. They also feature characters from many different cultures and backgrounds which I loved and you don’t see often enough in science fiction.

However, I found I couldn’t read this book for extended periods of time. It’s quite dense. Worldbuilding is Bacigalupi’s biggest strength but it turns into a weakness as well. ‘A Pocketful of Dharma’ is set in a cyberpunkish version of China told from the point of view of a young street beggar. A new, organic city is growing in the centre and the rich and important are moving there while Jun and his ilk are left on the ever-more squalid streets below relying on the generosity/guilt of tourists to survive. He innocently obtains a data cube that everyone and his mother is after. The data cube turns out to contain the consciousness of the Dalai Lama, who cannot reincarnate until it is destroyed. This is about to cause a war between China, Tibet and several others who all want it for their own ends.

The story is good but so much worldbuilding is crammed into so small a space that I can’t help but feel it needed more room to breathe. Casual references leave you wanting more, a lot more. Making the reader work and not belabouring and tiring out every detail can be a good thing but there is a lot of detail without very much explanation. There’s the character and the socio-economic strata of his world, there’s the city he lives in and the spongy living city he aspires to, there’s the life of the gangs around him, there’s the higher political problems, the technology, and the thumbnail sketches of the various other characters that Jun encounters with their own vague motivations… it’s a lot to take in on every page, so much so that it’s hard to get lost in the story itself, and it’s a good one. The characters also take a back-seat in this story, Jun’s the only one I ever felt was a real character. I have this problem with the worldbuilding in some of his other stories but not the character problem thankfully.

It’s definitely worth reading. It paints a bleak, complex picture of people oppressed by society but that picture is highly imaginative and, though he made me work for it, I’m glad I took the time to read it.

Notable lines: A vast biologic city, which other than its life support would then lie dormant as humanity walked its hollowed arteries, clambered through its veins and mailed memories to its skin in the rituals of habitation.

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