Paolo Bacigalupi Talks About New Directions for Hard Science Fiction

Paolo Bacigalupi just released his debut novel, a biotech thriller called The Windup Girl. We sat down with him to talk about hard environmental science fiction, growing up on a commune, and writing about the future of Thailand.

Bacigalupi earned a lot of praise for his short story collection Pump Six, and is already getting raves for The Windup Girl (io9 review here).

io9: The Windup Girl has a lot of hard science in it related to energy and GMOs. Where do you get your ideas for that? Are you reading science journals?

Paolo Bacigalupi: I have friends who are science journalists and I'm seeing stories of theirs or talking with them about ideas that they're pitching. Certain kinds of science are around me all the time, like climate change and biology.

I do research, but it's after stuff has percolated for a while. When I was an editor at High Country News I was reading all their stuff. There was a one-liner about checkerspots in [my short story] "The Gambler" - stuff like that, which I've absorbed elsewhere, drops in at convenient places as I'm writing. I'm always reading environmental journalism. Science writers point the way to interesting stories.

I don't think I'm unearthing any new science, though. I was just listening to Charles Stross talk about neuroeconomics and erudite concepts like that. I'm not like that. I'm working with basic science information.

I am interested in agricultural corporations and how they function. The idea that they own the genetics of our food supply is a really compelling thing to me. What will come out of that situation is a question mark in pop culture - for some reason I'm picking it up. I think it has to do with my lens. I'll see a supply chain or a sandal factory and immediately see the steps in how they've atomized a product. And I use that as the building blocks for a story. And then there's a layer of the made up, because I want that factory to feel a certain way.

Very few science fiction authors have dealt with the hard science of the environment. Do you think that's changing?

I'd like it to become more of a component that figures into SF. My fear is that it becomes window dressing - that we create lots of global warming futures where sea level has risen. Or there's a tip of the hat to various species going under – a wave of the hand saying yes this is our world – but it's not really an engagement. One way SF can go is to treat it less as a setting and more as a major component of the story.

I was just reading about a scientist down in Panama who has been rescuing these frogs from an onslaught of disease – it's like aliens coming down to Earth and rescuing humans before earth is destroyed. That's an interesting story to me. I immediately get this image of scientists parachuting into the jungle, trying to scoop up frogs to build a micro-ark of species!

Science fiction has these obsessions with certain sciences - large scale engineering, neuroscience. I'm not sure why biological science and environmental science don't inspire those same obsessions yet. I grew up in a hippie commune in Western Colorado where my parents were ineffectively trying to grow organic apples. My dad was an SF reader, but mostly a hippie commune guy. Now he's a sociologist who reads David Weber. There's a strange dichotomy. Because he was there I ended up having all these hippie values that are forced through the sieve of science fiction. I don't think many other core SF readers come up through that line.

Your work often deals with issues like peak oil and where we'll get our energy in the future. Why do you think so few other books deal with the obvious question of how we're going to rocket around everywhere when we have no more fuel?

We have a fair amount of disinterest with resource-level questions. Maybe that's because SF is an industrial literature.

I think the fact that we as writers don't engage with resource level questions is a symptom of our society where we just don't know where our stuff comes from. Industrial culture doesn't have to know – we let the market sort it out. We go to shelves in the store and get the food. When SF writers write, we've been trained not to think about where that resource comes from. We just assume somebody down there must be keeping the lights on and growing the food – that's how our world works!

But somebody needs to bring those offstage questions on stage. Where does energy come from? Where does the food come from? Where did the building block materials come from for whatever we're doing. We have a perception of post-scarcity already. And that problem is rife in SF. I'd like to SF touch on those questions – it will inform the society we'll build and the objects we'll build in the future. Or what we think of as a reasonably-designed house or computer screen. Resources define design, and we're designing worlds. So those questions need to be engaged with a lot more.

Do you feel like The Windup Girl is a political novel?

I have some political assumptions that inform the way the story's built. But the story does not have a political agenda. My short work is much more focused on having a key takeaway. That "moral of the story" - that awful killer of fiction. I would say with the novel I have values and political assumptions, though. Once you say giant agricultural corporations will stop at nothing for their profit margins – well, there are political values layered into that concept. But that's not the focus. It's not "agricorps control seedstock - bad bad bad!" The characters build their own stories.

I'd say this book has no key agenda at all. I sort of worried about that. What's the takeaway here? Actually, the takeaway was just "the end" - the characters fulfilled their arcs, and found their places in a difficult world. I always identify with my characters – it's what makes them real. You can't help but engage. I've never written a bad guy character who wasn't a part of me in some way. I don't support what they're doing but I identify with them. I have characters of four different nationalities and some part of me is threaded into that too.

Why did you decide to set this book in Thailand?

The real seed for this book happened many years ago – I was traveling in Southeast Asia and it was when SARS happened. Sudden respiratory illness was killing people like flies in Hong Kong. I traveled through there but didn't realize what was happening because the Chinese government was blacking out that information. When I crossed the border in Laos there was this explosion of information about SARS. But nobody knew how it was spreading.

Meanwhile I'm traveling in Southeast Asia in the hot season. Desperately, epically hot. By the time I arrived in Bankok these blisters were developing all over my body. I'm feeling diseased and I'm going to internet cafes googling on pictures of other people's skin diseases. I'm in this really hot building that was built like a giant solar oven. I'd turn on the fan, but the concrete walls were still radiating heat and my skin is falling off. Meanwhile all these people are coughing around you and all you can think is "SARS SARS SARS." That moment scarred me in some way. I feel like almost the whole book grew out of this miserable heat/disease/uncertainty thing.

I found myself writing stories set in hot, diseased settings. I kept writing versions of Bankok. My background is in East Asian studies and I lived in China, so part of me really wanted to set the story in China. That's the easy solution, because I have some expertise I can build on there. Whereas I knew very little about Thailand. And yet that place where I didn't understand a lot was so resonant that I couldn't get away from it.

Sometimes I worry about that choice - you do your best, and you do your fact checking, but you're always an outsider. So there's an inevitability of getting something wrong.

Sometimes people reach in and help you out. A bunch of people helped me with the book and rescued me from some solid spots of stupid. I read a bunch of Thai fiction before I stared writing, stuff in translation. And there's no agreement on how to represent Thailand in fiction. But I wanted to know how they represent their country to themselves. So that when I'm writing a Thai character I have some touchstones of understanding on how Thai literature looks at itself. The closest you'll get to being inside a Thai person's head is through Thai literature.

What's next for you?

I have a young adult novel called Shipbreaker coming out from Little, Brown next year. I'm under contract for another young adult novel after that, and I'm also working on a proposal for my next big [adult novel].