Interview with Hugo Winner Paolo Bacigalupi author of The Windup Girl.
JMW: This is Jean Marie Ward for BuzzyMag.com reporting from Balticon 45. With me today is Paolo Bacigalupi, multi award winning author of “The Wind up Girl”, “Shipraker” and many thought provoking short stories. Welcome.
Paolo Bacigalupi: Thanks.
JMW: You covered environmental issues for High Country News for several years before turning your hand to fiction. Was it a conscious decision to integrate those themes into your fiction or did it just happen?
Paolo Bacigalupi: It was a fairly conscious decision actually. At first when I was first writing short stories, I was really interested in just trying to make characters do what you wanted them to do. You wanted them to march through their scenes, you wanted them to be effective, you wanted the challenges to seem real, things like that. After some point though, those challenges really aren’t very interesting, and so then you start looking for other things to do with your stories and so I started trying to illustrate ideas more. I think the first time I really did that was with the “People of Sandand Slag” which was sort of an exercise in thinking about environmental issues and human innovation.
That sort of started off this whole ramp of different sort of investigations for me. And it’s basically informed all of my fictions since then. And I think, for me, at least, one of the things I find is it’s very difficult to sort of feel like you’re justified in spending your time being a writer or doing these things that there isn’t some purpose or outcome you’re sort of hoping for, some set of ideas that seem important enough to sort of kill all those trees to make all those books.
So I found that it’s fairly necessary also for me to have those ideas in play, those environmental questions and things that are concerns in my daily life and to have those infuse my fiction makes the fiction feel relevant to me and justifiable to me in some ways, so.
JMW: The fiction of ideas or the fiction of issues can be a hard sell. How do you make it fun?
Paolo Bacigalupi: Well, I’m not sure if I do make it fun.
JMW: Well, the sales and the awards would seem to think that.
Paolo Bacigalupi: Yeah, well it’s interesting. I mean when “The Wind up Girl” went out it was actually almost universally rejected specifically because people didn’t think it was any fun. And they didn’t see a lot of sales potential both because it was hard science fiction but also it was dark science fiction. And it felt depressing and, you know, just utopian. While it’s popular in YA fiction, it isn’t at all well loved in adult fiction, adult science fiction. And so I think honestly what’s really happening with something like “The Wind up Girl” is it feels relevant to people. I think that’s more than anything what drives the sales. There are interesting ideas and there’s all sorts of layers inside of it, but I think that that relevance is the thing that makes the book get handed on from person to person. I could be totally wrong.
But in terms of when you take issue fiction and the biggest danger with issue fiction, any kind of issue fiction, is that you’re going to end up preaching. That’s the fear that everybody has when they pick up a book. Whether it’s feminist book or an ecological book or a communist manifesto, whatever the hell it is, you’re worried that you’re just going to get preached at and then you’re going to sort of get this party line and that’s going to kill story. And so the thing that I found works most effectively is to actually have your setting make the argument about your values.
The setting in “The Wind up Girl” and the setting in “Shipraker” also, they’re both devastated worlds. People are already living inside of the consequences of all our bad decisions. It’s not, oh the good people over here are going to fight against the bad people over here and save the environment. No, no, no, no, no. It’s going to be everybody just lives in the consequences of our present day bad decisions, and they try to hack it out as best they can. So you have all of those moral shades of gray, you have all those interesting sort of human conflicts because the characters themselves don’t have to specifically illustrate the larger set of issues. You let the background, you let the environment do that. And you let the characters actually just be human beings. I think that’s part of it, too.
JMW: You studied Chinese in college and you’ve traveled extensively in Asia. What impact, if any, has that had on your fiction? I know in “The Wind up Girl” you set it in….
Paolo Bacigalupi: Thailand.
JMW: Thailand, yeah. Has it given you a different perspective on the universe, or on the world of science fiction?
Paolo Bacigalupi: Yeah. I think probably one of the most valuable things that ever happened to me actually was that I went to China when I was in college. And studying Chinese and living in China meant that I was running up against a culture that didn’t look at the world exactly the way that I looked at the world. I remember this moment after I’d been living in China for a long time and I had come back to the United States and I was sitting in a park, and suddenly I noticed that all around me there were these rats running around in the park, these rodent things. And I kept looking at them and thinking, why isn’t anybody else concerned about these rodents, they’re everywhere, these things, these rats, rodents are everywhere. And I was really disturbed by them.
Suddenly I realized that they were squirrels. It was this really strange moment because in China there were no animals anywhere around. It was a very dead environment. So coming back to the United States the first translated sort of version of animal in park that I came to was actually rat. And that jumped into my head and it’s like, why do we let these rodent things run around? And you realize that customarily we just do that. We just say that squirrels are a nice naturey sort of rodent, as opposed to rats, and you see that sort of cultural assumption in play. You never
And I think there’s something in that when you’ve lived somewhere else and you’ve run into a whole lot of other people’s cultural assumptions that are very different from yours, that’s one sort of slap in the face where you really start looking around at the world and thinking differently. But even more so, when you come back to your home country and all of the assumptions of your world suddenly look like these weird made up things. I think as a science fiction writer you’re always sort of looking for those interesting assumptions that we make. We say, well, of course, we drive our cars to work and back. And it just feels so natural and normal and nobody’s going to question it. And it’s like, no, no, why? What built this? What made this custom and why do we continue to do it? And it starts you down those lines of questioning where you’re suddenly an outsider looking at those daily parts of your life that you took for granted instead of being an insider and not paying attention.
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.