The Windup Girl was a killer debut. Set in a post–global-warming-apocalypse Bangkok, Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel about biotech intrigue won science fiction’s biggest awards and cemented his reputation as the ultimate political, sophisticated genre writer. So for his next trick, Bacigalupi … started writing books for kids. They weren’t less serious than Windup Girl, but they definitely left at least some fans—OK, me—wishing Bacigalupi would get back to paying attention to, well, us. And now he has. Out today, The Water Knife centers on a vicious fight over water rights in a near-future, desiccated American Southwest. It’s just as apocalyptic as his first book, more political, and though it didn’t seem possible, angrier.
You write about a pretty grim future. Do you really think it’s going to happen?
If you read my books, we’re all going to shit. But it’s an interesting question, because there’s been a lot of conversation lately about how optimistic science fiction should be, about whether it’s a bad idea to write books about bad futures. I guess I feel I can leave the optimism to the marketing departments of major corporations. They’ve got that covered: “The future is fine. Just keep shopping.”
All the definitions people want to put on you in terms of what kind of writer you are come with hidden meanings. If you’re writing science fiction, you’re writing rocket ships. If you write dystopian fiction it’s inequity where The Man must be fought. I think Margaret Atwood says she writes anticipation, which is a neat way to talk about it. I say I write extrapolations. I look at data points and ask what the world could look like.
Kyle HiltonBut as a result, your books, even the ones for kids, are very political. How do you write artfully but still with a message?
Novelists want to be published and need a publisher to decide to print 20,000 copies. So you need to entertain on some level. I want to reach out and connect. Part of that is I want to make a living, sure, but if you’re going to be involved in an artistic project it should have some meaning. Without question, I have a certain agenda and a certain set of ideas that I want people to experience more deeply and viscerally because they’re highly abstract. I can play out a thought experiment through fiction, which is the only way we have to engage with people’s lives that aren’t our own. Here’s a version of our lives in the future. Theoretically you now have the opportunity to make different decisions and vote for different politicians. Climate change is a giant unforced error. We don’t have to be as dumb as we are.
Sure, but you don’t have to be as detailed as you are about the politics of the apocalypse, either. In William Gibson’s latest book, The Peripheral, he doesn’t really detail the apocalypse at all.
I haven’t read it yet, but a lot of apocalyptic literature doesn’t really engage seriously with what exactly went wrong, and that means means the books aren’t really telling us anything at all. When the nuclear disaster looks a lot like the biological disaster, which looks a lot like the zombie apocalypse, all it means is “now we must survive.” There will be bad dudes running around doing bad-dude stuff. You see the tropes and it looks like wank to me. It’s the one place where I kind of agree with Neal Stephenson when he asks why we write depressing futures. If every depressing future looks the same, no one is saying anything. It’s just an amusement park experience where we get to shoot people and feel justified. If I can see the same tropes again and again, that means nothing’s happening. Things can break! Right, but why? The whole point of writing a broken future is to say let’s not break it this way. Let’s not do this.
When I was writing The Water Knife one of the things I wanted to do was model two different versions of a city. Las Vegas has said, the data doesn’t look good, let’s start planning. Phoenix says, maybe it won’t be as bad. And Phoenix is devastated. You don’t break the future just to have a thrill ride. I have the same problem with dystopias that don’t make sense. Why this dystopia? Why this police state? What does it mean?
You’re talking about, like, The Hunger Games or Divergent.
Well, the young adult category is particularly interesting to me in terms of science fiction and fantasy tropes. The readers who are becoming the writers are not necessarily coming in through the doors of bookstore-genre science fiction and fantasy, so it feels a lot like people are having to learn the skills of world-building all over again—like you’re reading science fiction from the 1940s or 1950s. Because they haven’t read a bunch of people who’ve already figured out the tools, those worlds tend to have big holes in them if you look closely.
But at the same time you have writers coming to SF from the more literary, MFA world of introspective high-class fiction.
There’s a Theodore Sturgeon quote about 99 percent of everything being shit. That’s true of science fiction and literary fiction and Iowa Writers Workshop fiction and everything else. There are a few people doing really genuine, powerful work. You can tell pretty quickly whether someone picked up a trope because there’s a use for it or because, hey, zombies! In particular, the literary fiction writers using genre tropes is, more than anything else, an acknowledgment that most of what they do is played out. If you’ve strip-mined a territory, you send people into other territories to start a new mining operation. I don’t have a strong hope that genre will be taken seriously because of it—or watered down or messed up because of it, either. When I think about science fiction I’m thinking about toolsets that other genres don’t have. My biggest concern is that people mistake some of the trappings—the rocket ships and ray guns—as the toolset.
You once told me that the difference between books for adults and YA was that YA had “less fucking.” Is that really it?
My answer for that keeps changing. I paid much more attention to plot and pacing in YA, but I think there were skill sets I didn’t have, so when I wrote The Water Knife, it’s a significantly more pace-y, fast-moving book. I never had that control before. I was concerned that my hypothetically bored teen reader was one step away from the videogame console, and I wanted to hold onto him or her. But now I’m like, oh, yeah, peel it back and get to the heart. I feel like I picked up some discipline.
The other difference, and this still holds true, is when I’m writing for teens I tend to want there to be a sense of hope in the stories, like there is a potential to seize hold of your own destiny. They tend to be slightly more empowered by their worlds, whereas adults I tend to think of as being in stasis because of decisions we’ve already made.
There was a moment when I was writing Drowned Cities, which is YA, where the material dragged itself into a space I would have classified as adult—child soldiering and stuff. It’s the darkest book I’ve written. And it turns out kids love it.
When I think about it, your books all seem to happen along the same messed up timeline. Is there a Bacigalupiverse?
I deliberately say I’m not writing in the same universe because I don’t want the baggage. But yeah, there’s a package of obsessions that build a certain future. It’s always populated by politicians who refuse to lead, a citizenry that decided not to pay attention, and oops points—moments where we were sure things were going to be fine, and then they weren’t. Almost every one of the futures I have is not one that any of the characters would have chosen for themselves. They’re always like, goddamn, if we’d just done something different a little further back. That shows up again and again for me. I’m always a little melancholy.
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