Sep 9, 2009

Keeping An Eye On... Paolo Bacigalupi

I was particularly excited to interview this week's subject for Keeping An Eye On...: Paolo Bacigalupi. Like all of the authors on SF Signal's Watchlist, Paolo's early work has been spectacular. What distinguishes him in my mind, is his skill at writing plausible, provocative, and more-than-slightly disturbing environmentally-themed fiction. In a lot of ways, the next couple of decades will be shaped by the success or failure of the green revolution in the same way that the space race and the computer age influenced the 60s and 80s. Paolo Bacigalupi will be there, setting the bar for genre authors when it comes to predicting the problems and the improvements of the next generations.

There's a reason why Paolo sits on the top of the Watchlist with no less than 5 nominations.

SoY: If we are keeping an eye on you, what should be looking for in the near future? What have you been working on recently?

PB: The main thing you should be looking out for is my novel The Windup Girl. That's the big project that's eaten my attention for the last three years. We launched the book at Worldcon in Montreal, and it will be in wide release soon after. The story is set in the same universe as my Hugo-nominated novelettes "The Calorie Man" and "Yellow Card Man." and it focuses on the hunt for a seedbank hidden in Bangkok. It's a bit of a political intrigue and spy novel wrapped around the hunt for genetic diversity. Or, at least, that's one of the storylines. There are four main characters with varying agendas, and as they bump into each other at different points in the novel, mayhem ensues.

SoY: Your work tends to focus on environment issues, often projecting a somewhat pessimistic outlook toward the future. What is the driving force behind this? Is your upcoming work in the same vein?

PB: Most of the news about the state of the environment is pretty ugly. This is frightening for me personally, but actually motivational for me artistically. Environmental science is telling us a lot about our future and what it could look like, whether we're talking about global warming (the current poster child for the environment) or a loss of genetic diversity in our food supplies, or the effects of low-dose chemicals on human development. The surfeit of bad trends pushes me to set my stories in worlds which are often diminished versions of our own present. Mostly, I write these versions of the future because I'm worried about what seems to be happening, and I'm worried that we as a society aren't particularly interested in changing our ways. Certainly the next couple novels you'll see from me will be set in fairly ravaged futures. I'm trying to find ways to tell compelling and engaging human stories within those futures, but yeah, the future looks a bit bleak to me.

SoY: If a reader has never heard of you before reading this, what is the one single piece of work of yours (novel, short story, cave painting, etc.) would you like them to read?

PB: Sorry, can't pick one. The main reason I want someone to read a story of mine is so they can enjoy it and feel like they got something interesting out of it. But that means different stories will appeal to different readers. For a science fiction reader, I'd say probably "The People of Sand and Slag," because I like the ideas and the twists, and I'm still a fan of the ending. For someone who doesn't read science fiction but is interested in environmental issues -- probably "The Calorie Man," or else my new novelette "Pump Six." For a general reader just looking for an interesting story, I'd say "The Fluted Girl." Not all of my stories strike the right notes for all people; I've seen people who hated a story like "Yellow Card Man" come back and rave about "The Fluted Girl."

SoY: Your short story collection Pump Six and Other Stories focuses on a range of cultures from all over the globe. How do you go from learning about a culture to prognosticating the future of said culture while remaining genuine and avoiding stereotypes?

PB: The more you read about and immerse in a culture, the more it comes alive, and the more textured and nuanced and detailed and unstereotypable (if I can use such a word) it becomes. And as you research, I think that themes tend to emerge about what a culture values, and what's happening in its daily life that could plausibly influence its future. With The Windup Girl, which is set in a future version of Bangkok, there were a number of things that jumped out at me: a huge amount of political unrest and a history of coups and counter-coups, a deep reverence for the Thai monarchy, terrifying poverty, both urban and rural, conflicts with a Muslim minority in the south, refugees from Burma to the east, a country completely vulnerable to rising sea levels, a history of political independence and survival in the face of western imperialism, a deep reverence for Buddhism.... And of course, the more you read, the more you learn, and ultimately there is more information than you can ever use. The difficulty is that as an outsider, you know you're too ignorant for your own good, and so the urge to keep researching and *never* start writing is pretty strong. At some point, you realize you can't provide a perfectly monolithic description of a foreign culture's future any more than you can provide a monolithic description of your own hometown's future. Your choices about what to emphasize and what to leave out make all the difference, and ultimately, your fingerprints and biases and viewpoints are going to be all over the story. Take three different Thai writers and ask them to extrapolate their county's future, and one hopes that you'll get three very different--but all deeply honest-- versions. Plenty of people say my guesses about a future drought in the western U.S. (where I live and grew up) are wrong, so I don't see why I won't be wrong in some people's eyes when I go set a story on foreign shores. What I'm hoping to do though is to ground my extrapolations in specificity, and to make sure that the story I tell is deliberately and honestly told.

SoY: What sub-genres are you most interested in? Is there a difference in what subgenres you read and the ones you write?

PB: I like fast plots with things that explode. When I read, I'm either reading to learn, or I'm reading to switch off. So for pleasure, I'll read military sf, or Elmore Leonard capers, anything that's fast and fun. Otherwise, I mostly pick at books, without any clear focus. I read a few pages here or there, and then set them down again. I used to love reading, but since I've started writing, it's harder for me to immerse, because I spend so much time looking at how the story is structured and trying to see what the author is doing behind the curtain. Otherwise, I'll often read outside of sf and fantasy. I've been dipping into a bunch of Indian novels that I picked up the last time I was Mumbai visiting my wife's family. I've got a reader called Tamil Pulp Fiction that I'm itching to dive into, and I just started a novel called Chowringhee by a Bengali author named Sankar that looks promising.

SoY: What are your writing habits like? Do you have any peculiar writing habits that somehow work for you but everyone else would find quirky (and/or insane)?

PB: Not really. I like to have a good selection of tea on hand. I write at a standing desk, which has helped me be much more productive and solved some back problems, but mostly all my quirky habits have to do with procrastination and avoidance rather than with work. I'm slowly trying to stamp those out.

SoY: FACT: The solution to all of the world’s environmental issues is bioengineering photosynthetic humans. As a speculative author, what’s the first consequence that comes to your mind?

PB: At first, I think, death of the meat industry, but really, we don't need to eat meat now, so there's no reason we'd stop eating it just because we don't need it. Ditto for the rest of the ag industry. But there is the possibility of foodie culture becoming an even more rarefied and elite object, something for aesthetes. On the other hand, if we're all photosynthesizing, maybe that causes mass equatorial migration, so we can maximize our children's health and access to sunlight, so the sun-deprived north wages war on the equatorial zones for better sunlight territory. I think Alaska basically depopulates. Of course, then the question really is... can we *only* photosynthesize? Or is it supplemental energy? Maybe the effect is that we keep eating just like always, but we're also photosynthesizing, and so we GET REALLY OBESE, and just lie around as giant green lumps on lawn chairs, soaking up free sun food and doing nothing else at all. Come to think of it, if we photosynthesize, it would also mean a change in our food spending, so grocery stores and convenience marts would disappear... which would mean that stoners with the munchies would be completely out of luck. But as long as we're engineering ourselves to have chlorophyll, maybe we could add in THC, and sit around clipping our hair and toenails and smoking it. And if we photosynthesize, does that mean we go around naked all the time, or at least wearing transparent clothing so we can absorb as much sunlight as possible? Maybe because we're photosynthesizing we'll do more work outside. So our laptops will have to get rid of these damn glossy screens that have become so popular. And then we'll sit around outside, sucking up sun, getting fat and green, and surfing the net.

SoY: An incident occurs resulting in your removal from the list of up-and-coming genre stars. What is the most likely cause of that incident? Who do you nominate in your place?

PB: I spend enough time worrying about death as it is, I don't think I'll dwell on this one. But I do like Nathan Ballingrud's writing.

SoY: Every writer has a favorite word. What’s that unique word that tries to find its way into everything you write?

PB: F***
But then I have to take it out.

SoY: You are approached to write a tie-in novel in an existing (and your favorite) SFF universe. Which universe is it? Do you take the offer?

PB: I suppose it would depend how much money I was offered. If I could give my family some real financial security by doing tie-ins for Grand Theft Auto... I'd totally do it.

SoY: What’s the best thing you’ve read this year?

PB: FEED, by MT Anderson.

SoY: At what age did you finally learn how to spell your last name?
PB: Three. My mother had to spell it a lot for other people, so it became a bit of a singsong chant to me.

SoY: [Obligatory pimpage] Is there anywhere online that readers can follow you and your work? [/obligatory pimpage]

PB: I'm also on Facebook and Twitter.

I don't think I can recommend Paolo's work highly enough. If you asked me to pick the one short fiction writer I was confident I would see on SFF Award novel shortlists sooner rather than later, I would have no second thoughts about nominating Mr. Bacigalupi. The day I finished Pump Six and Other Stories I sent an email to Paolo via his website, eagerly hoping that a novel was in the works. When he responded that his debut novel was coming out later this year, I was ecstatic and I've been counting down the days ever since.

The Wind-Up Girl comes out next Tuesday, Sept 15th. You should go get it. I'll be the one ahead of you in line.

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