The Author with the Unpronounceable Name: an Interview with Paolo Bacigalupi

by Allan Vorda

Born in Western Colorado and raised on a fifteen-acre farm, Paolo Bacigalupi attended Oberlin College, where he decided to major in Chinese—a choice that enabled him to teach in China and visit such countries as India, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan. He drew upon his experiences in the Far East, as well as writing environmental columns for High Country News, to write short stories that were eventually collected in Pump Six and Other Stories (Night Shade Books, 2008). Bacigalupi followed this impressive debut with a novel, The Windup Girl (Night Shade Books, 2009), which has already snagged several major awards, including both the Hugo and the Nebula. A science-fiction novel set in a dystopian future of Thailand where foods are genetically made to feed a world starving from bio-engineered plagues, The Windup Girl offers intriguing themes to ponder. As in any good book, however, the main focus is on the multi-dimensional characters, especially the “windup girl” of the title, a genetically designed geisha girl named Emiko. Although programmed to obey, used primarily as a sex-toy, and with the defect of a herky-jerky body that overheats, Emiko might be the most human character in the novel. Bacigalupi’s latest publication is the young adult novel Ship Breaker(Little, Brown, 2010), in which he brings his unique vision to younger readers.


Allan Vorda: Terry Bisson gave you a backhanded compliment for your writing when he says, “Luckily, he has an unpronounceable name.” Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Paolo Bacigalupi: Well, I'm not Italian. Let's start with that. Or at least I'm so watered down that I've got no legitimate claim to the culture, despite the name. This seems to cause great disappointment for anyone who comes across my name before meeting me—I'm more exotic in print, apparently. As far as my background: I was born and raised in rural Colorado. My parents were hippies who wanted to get back to the land, and I grew up on fifteen acres of apple orchards and hay fields and a lot of sagebrush and juniper trees. I attended Oberlin College where I studied Chinese. I picked the language for no good reason, but I thought that an educated person should speak more than one language and I was sick of studying Spanish, so I went rooting through the course catalog and came across Chinese. I thought, Hmm, I've heard Chinese is hard. So I picked it. And it really was hard, horribly hard. But I stuck with it, and because of that one casual choice, I ended up spending a fair amount of time on the other side of the Pacific, and some of my most formative years in China. I'm traveling less now, but my wife has family in India, so we at least get a chance every few years to go over for weddings and such.

AV: Christy Tidwell wrote an article called “The Problem of Materiality in Paolo Bacigalupi’s ‘The People of Sand and Slag,’” which focuses on the meaning of posthumanism. She concludes by saying: “A truly ethical posthuman future would, as Sherryl Vint has argued, be an embodied posthumanism and it would also be a posthumanism that is post-Humanist and post-Cartesian, a posthumanism that neither defines humanity in opposition to nonhuman nature and the environment nor defines nonhuman nature and the environment in terms of the human. Bacigalupi presents a strong argument for precisely this by revealing what happens in the absence of such an ethical and embodied posthumanism.” Do you agree with this assessment? Does your story have a moral premise in light of an amoral future with a lack of ethics?

PB: This is one of those moments when I realize that my education is lacking—I had to read your question a couple times to get all my humanisms and posthumanisms straight. At root, my assumption is that humanity is intertwined with nature. We are part of it, and the more we pretend otherwise, the less human we become. In “The People of Sand and Slag,” humanity has transcended all the things that require us to partake of what we might call ecosystem services. They live off sand and mine waste and don't notice the loss. They don't need nature, and that has implications for how they interact with their world. I'm not sure that the characters in the story are less ethical than present-day humans, they're just more sharply defined.

AV: Ursula K. Heise states in “From Extinction to Electronics: Dead Frogs, Live Dinosaurs, and Electric Sheep,” that there is “the possibility of a different relationship between species: one that no longer privileges the right of humans—feminine or masculine—over those of all other life forms of life, but that recognizes the value and rights of nonhuman species along with those of humans.” This takes into consideration such characters in your fiction as human and posthuman—centaurs, bio-jobs, animals, and windups. Based on the relationship of the characters in “The People of Sand and Slag,” the future for humanity does not look promising. What is your vision of the future for mankind in the 21st century and beyond?

PB: I think—if we're honest with ourselves—that we all know that we will be making do with less, even as we try to convince ourselves that we've actually got more. We'll enjoy less open space, fewer species and less diverse ecosystems, less clean water, less clean air, less ecosystem resilience, less cheap energy. Life today is probably as good as it gets. Of course, we could actually start planning and preserving and living as if we've got a long-term interest in the planet—as if we're embedded and part of a much larger web, which I think is what Ms. Heise is referring to—but we haven't showed any signs of change so far. I'm betting we're going to stay selfish, and hand our kids a shitstorm.

AV: I am curious if any of the following writers had any influence on the writing of “The People of Sand and Slag”: Ursula K. LeGuin (The Left Hand of Darkness), Dan Simmons (the Hyperion quartet), and Harlan Ellison (“A Boy and His Dog”).

PB: I've read The Left Hand of Darkness and “A Boy and His Dog.” I got about fifty pages intoHyperion. I can't say exactly how those things might have tied into the final story; everything is mulch. What I can say specifically is that I was inspired by a news story of a dog living in a superfund site in Butte, Montana, and by an argument that I had with one of my bosses about human ingenuity and his confidence that we humans are so clever that we'll always keep thinking our way out of every problem. Those were definite seeds. The rest of it is all probably fertilizer of some sort or another, but I can't really say how all that works.

AV: There’s been increasing demand for grains as our planet’s population has doubled since the 1960s. What do you see as the dangers of genetically produced grains, which is a theme in “The Calorie Man” as well as The Windup Girl?

PB: I see genetically modified food as being worrisome in any number of ways: (1) we don't really understand the technology very well. GM research seems to be running forward willy-nilly and we risk letting genies out of bottles that we don't understand; (2) companies want to replace existing seeds with their own profit-generating seeds, often in conjunction with their herbicide products, which have their own cascade effects; (3) it seems to encourage monoculture planting, which strikes me as shortsighted; (4) I don't like it when my food is owned by corporations who, let's face it, aren't in the business of feeding people, but are in the business of generating quarterly profit. They may talk about feeding people, but that's PR—they're about profit and they're about control. You don't patent genetic material to feed people, you patent it so no one else can have it and you can make money off of people's need.

As far as the question of addressing the ever-increasing demand for food, it strikes me that GM tech is the shortsighted solution to the larger problem of how we deal with the fact that we as a species are overtaxing our planet's ecosystems. GMOs seem like a successful bid to squeeze a bit of blood from the stone, but at some point, we still face the fundamental question of how we deal with runaway population growth.

AV: Short stories from Pump Six such as “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man” are precursors for characters and themes in The Windup Girl. When did these the ideas coalesce into the larger work?

PB: Actually, the novel's seed came first. I created a short story that just refused to work. When I showed it to a friend of mine, she commented that it felt like a dwarf star, with too many characters and too many plotlines all jammed against one another. It was more like a novel, compressed, and needed to be a novel, uncompressed.

At the time, I was burned-out on writing novels, having written four, which didn't sell, so I was horrified at the suggestion. Instead, I went back to the short story and started harvesting interesting bits. “The Calorie Man” was an attempt to explore part of the world—the GMOs and peak-oil world—without anything else getting in the way. “Yellow Card Man” was a chance to do a character study, and fill in the back-story of one of the characters.

At one point, I thought I could probably harvest stories out of that one packed short story for years. It looked like there were at least a dozen other possible stories just waiting to be mined. Instead, I finally got up the guts and wrote The Windup Girl. All told, from the initial story idea to the final version of the book I think it was something like five or six years. Three years of serious work on the novel, and then all that other time while I hid my head under the bed and avoided it.

AV: Since The Windup Girl is set in Thailand, tell us how your time in Asia affected you and your writing. I have to say the country is absolutely beautiful and I have never seen people as jaidee (good-hearted) as those in Thailand.

PB: The Thai people really are wonderful, and the people I met were very warm both to me and to one another. If there's one thing I really regret about The Windup Girl, it's that the book doesn't sufficiently illuminate that facet of Thai culture. My stories are almost always about the worst of humanity, extrapolated. Broken worlds, and broken people. There were things about Thailand that I loved, but I wasn't sufficiently clever to find a way to illuminate those positive layers in my larger narrative. It makes you aware of how storytelling can illuminate, but it can also distort.

AV: What writers have influenced you and your writing?

PB: When I was first learning to write, writers like J. G. Ballard and Cormac McCarthy and LeGuin and Hemingway and Gibson inspired me and drove me to try to excel. For The Windup Girl, it was sort of a crash course in Thai literature, mostly in translation: Botan and S. P. Somtow and Kukrit Pramoj and Chart Korbjitti, among others. It was exhilarating to be taking in so much writing that I'd never encountered before, but sometimes it was frustrating as well. I found myself wishing more than once that Chart Korbjitti had a more nuanced translator—I couldn't help feeling that the transition to English did some damage to his voice. And it frustrated and frightened me that I couldn't learn enough Thai fast enough to read it myself. It emphasized how much on the outside I was going to be as I tried to write The Windup Girl.

AV: One of the themes throughout the novel has to do with the worldwide susceptibility of grains to blister rust and ivory beetles. Was this concept partly developed due to the spread of beetles in your state of Colorado, a spread that was triggered by global warming?

PB: It was one of the inspirations, yes. I used to work as the online editor for an environmental journal, and it is terrifying to be immersed in the details of our changing world. As far as rusts go, look no further than Ug99, a wheat rust that is destroying crops in Africa and the Middle East, and looks likely to attack wheat crops world-wide unless we engineer a solution. One of the things that interest me about our food supply is that it is a monoculture. Billions and billions of people all depending on monoculture to survive. And monocultures are vulnerable. So I use news stories and then extrapolate to what the world would look like if those stories proved out. Unfortunately, many of my worst imaginings don't seem nearly as far-fetched as I used to think.

AV: It seems there is an anti-farang (Westerner) message throughout your novel, as when Hock Seng states: “We’re working for ourselves, now. No more foreign influence, yes?” Is this sentiment something you developed for your story, or is this something you detected when you were in Thailand?

PB: I developed it for the story, based on the way I've seen people behave when they're put under pressure by outside forces. The Thailand of the future is very much beset by farang agricultural companies. My assumption is that we all get a little more nationalistic when we're fighting for survival.

AV: Your characters are not the stereotypical ones we meet in most novels. Anderson Lake seems like he might possibly be a hero early in the novel, but he is a hard one to read. Jaidee seems to harbor conflicting feelings toward his wife and Kanya. Characters like Carlyle, Raleigh, Akkarat, and General Pracha are hardly respectable or honorable, but the only truly evil person, or so it seems, is Gibbons. Perhaps the most moral or ethical character with feelings is The Windup Girl Emiko. How did you come up with these multi-dimensional characters?

PB: I don't think anyone wakes up in the morning and decides, “Today, I'm going to be the bad guy.” We just end up there, and we've all got a good excuse for why we failed to live up to our higher ideals. I actually think most of the characters in the book are heroes. They're all trying, and they're hanging onto their ideals as best they can, whether it's Tan Hock Seng and his dream of rebuilding his wealth and a family, or Jaidee and Kanya trying to protect their country. Anderson Lake came from a place where people starved and where rock candy was such a childhood treat that it still remains in his mind to adulthood. If you remember starvation, staying out of starvation by any means necessary doesn't seem so crazy. I don't judge any of the characters too harshly. I doubt I'd do half as well as any of them in the circumstances that I throw them into.


AV: The Windup Girl has genetically made cheshires, described as “a high-tech homage to Lewis Carroll,” and megodonts, which seem to be a DNA-reproduction of the extinct mastodons. What was your inspiration for these creatures?

PB: I wanted to use megodonts because I wanted to illustrate the connection between calories and joules—the connecting tissue between food and energy—in this world. And, let's face it, a giant elephant-like creature is pretty fun when it goes crazy in a factory. Cheshires were a way to illustrate the unforeseen consequences of an invasive species. Something that initially seems harmless and entertaining turns out to have ecosystem consequences as it tears through the songbird population. And, of course, invisible cats are cool, too. I try not to deny myself the fun of creation as a writer.

AV: You portray the religious sect called Grahamites in a fairly bad light, as most are fat while the rest of the world is starving. Did you choose the name from Billy Graham and his followers? What do you see for the role of religion in the future?

PB: Grahamites, at root, are believers. All that's good in that—in that they want to protect the natural world—and all that's bad in that, because they do tend to get carried away and burn things down. I don't really view them as a commentary on religion per se, except that I think religion will continue to adapt to the needs of its parishioners. Religion drives people to fanaticism, but so does politics. So does economics. The people who celebrate the genius and wisdom of free markets are just as crazy as the ones who tell you Jesus is the only way to salvation. Let's face it, we've never been a very logical species.

AV: There is a scene in which Kanya takes the elevator down into the bowels of the Quarantine Department, perhaps suggesting Dante’s Inferno. Why is the Quarantine Department looked upon negatively, since it helped Thailand survive while the Empire of America no longer exists and the Asian nations are broke and starving?

PB: The Quarantine Department is a frightening place. I don't think it's looked down on so much as feared, because of the kinds of genetic material it works with. I actually based some of the Quarantine Department's underground labs on descriptions of the CDC's own biological containment facilities.

AV: How did you come up with the concept of The Windup Girl? It’s interesting that Emiko, a genetically produced creature, is perhaps the most human of all the characters in your novel.

PB: I've always been interested in people who are required to serve someone else. It shows up in my short story “The Fluted Girl,” and it shows up again with the bioengineered soldier named Tool in my new young adult novel, Ship Breaker. I only recently noticed that I keep returning to this theme. I think, at root, I'm interested in what makes us loyal—what binds us to other people. As far as Emiko's original inspiration, she came to me during an international flight. A Japanese stewardess caught my eye, because she was moving with a strange sort of herky-jerky motion. I almost thought she was acting a role because the movements were so robotically stylized. I couldn't get the image out of my head.

AV: Gibbons is the mad geneticist who pictures himself as some sort of god, a Conradian Kurtz with little empathy or feeling for mankind. He says: “If we wish to remain at the top of our food chain, we will evolve. Or we will refuse, and go the way of the dinosaurs and Felis domesticus. Evolve or die.” How do you see this character?

PB: Gibbons is the ultimate pragmatist. He looks around at the world, sees what's wrong, and then adapts to it. He's not sentimental about loss or change. He just does what he has to do in order to survive and to please himself. And he is powerful. When he claims a sort of godhood for the changes he can inflict on the world, and in fact has already inflicted, he's not mad, he's stating a fact. The thing that's scariest about him, to me, is that he might be right. We may already be past the point of sentimentality for nature or what we used to have. From now on, it's adapt or die.

AV: Your use of the Thai superstition of ghosts and Kanya’s ongoing discussion with Jaidee’s ghost recalls John Burdett’s use of ghosts in his novel Bangkok Haunts.

PB: I haven’t read Bangkok Haunts; I was actually more inspired by some of S. P. Somtow's short stories. But I liked the presence of ghosts in Thai folklore and I wanted them there, as another part of Jaidee’s and Kanya's world. I've always sort of felt that the soil of different countries emanates its own rules of reality and you need to respect that when you journey to those shores, so having active phii(ghosts) in the story seemed like a good way of acknowledging a different country.

AV: Kanya speculates that Jaidee might be reincarnated as a windup, a fascinating concept.

PB: I'm really interested in how religion adapts to the changes that science and technology introduce. At least since Copernicus, science has challenged religious cosmology, and forced adaptation. Windups challenge almost all of our religious conceptions of soul—given their hybrid, manufactured nature.

AV: The rape of Emiko by Somdet’s men is a powerful scene. How did you develop this degrading and violent moment in the book?

PB: I still feel a little uncomfortable about that scene and the first one where Emiko is introduced, but it seemed like the reader needed to be in the room during her abuse, so that her later actions would seem acceptable. I have no idea how I wrote it. My wife sort of looks askance at me as well.

AV: Violence also ensues when the ghost of Jaidee tells Kanya, “What good is a city if the people are enslaved?”—and of course when Emiko goes against her training and kills Somdet and his men.

PB: We all hit breaking points, moments when we decide to stop going along, and change paths. So much of the world wants us to obey and not make waves, to be good workers and consumers and soldiers and parents and children and what have you—even when it goes against our own best interest, and even the best interest of others. I like it when characters make cathartic changes, and act according to their truest selves. And I like pushing them to that breaking point.

AV: Let’s talk about your newest book. What was the inspiration for Ship Breaker? Did you consciously write it as a young adult novel?

PB: There were a couple things going on. One was that I write a lot of science fiction for adults that focuses on questions of the environment and sustainability, and pretty soon I realized that while adults will often nod their heads in agreement at what I write, they aren't going to make a change in their lives—we're simply too fixed in our positions to accept the sort of change that's necessary. Kids, on the other hand, haven't made all of our dumb decisions about cars and mortgages and jobs yet, so it seems possible to influence them more readily. So, yes, Ship Breaker was always going to be aimed at teens. The actual inspiration for the novel came from watching a documentary about Edward Burtynsky calledManufactured Landscapes that featured ship breaking operations in Bangladesh. I was so struck by the imagery that I couldn't get it out of my head.

AV: A key element in the book is Nailer’s and the crew’s belief in Fates, luck, and superstition.

PB: One of the things you figure out eventually is that there's no rhyme or reason to why one person ends up living a life of privilege and another person doesn't. We get born to whomever we get born to, and then deal with the consequences. Short of a sort of karmic worldview, whatever we're born into is random, and in many cases the opportunities that come before us are random as well. But the other side of that equation is what we do with whatever opportunities we have, and what opportunities we're willing to create through work and force of will. It's always a combination. For Nailer, he's feeling his way into the question of how much he can change the cards he's been dealt.

AV: As in The Windup Girl, there is the theme of slavery in Ship Breaker with the half-man Tool. When asked why he doesn’t obey as trained he responds, “They made a mistake with me. . . . I was smarter than they prefer.” What is the impetus for using this as a social metaphor in your fiction?

PB: I'm interested in characters who don't do what they're told. Most of society asks all of us to do as we're told. To be good workers, to be good consumers, to be good, to stay in our place, and not to break out or think too many dangerous thoughts about why our world is the way it is, and why we're participating in many of its horrors. I keep wondering why we're all so obedient, and maybe that's making its way into my fiction.

AV: The issue of slavery is also present with Nita “Lucky Girl” Patel who has a true owner-slave mentality based on her family’s treatment of half-men—she believes that “genes are destiny” and opines, “we treat [them] well.” Is there an analogy to be made with the half-men characters to the issue of slavery as it occurred in the United States?

PB: I wasn't consciously aiming for that, but I think that wealth provides a certain sense of privilege and ownership and entitlement, whether or not there's actual slavery involved.

AV: The half-men such as Tool are described as a “genetic cocktail of humanity, tigers, and dogs.” How did you develop this creature and the role they play in Ship Breaker?

PB: Tool's archetype has been with me for a long time. I recently re-read “The Fluted Girl” and it turns out that he's there in a different form, as Burson, the head of Madame Belari's security. For me, the half-men provide a lens to examine questions of loyalty, because they are engineered genetically from dog DNA to obey, but also to play with questions of nature versus nurture, which are very much on Nailer's mind as he tries to figure out who he is in relation to his father.

AV: Indeed, the idea that “genes are destiny” worries Nailer a great deal.

PB: We all get certain things from our parents—some are taught, some are genetic—and yet, we are not clones. And yet the ghosts of our parents haunt us. If our parents were abusive, we fear becoming so ourselves, because sometimes we do repeat the failures of our parents. If they were addicts, or couldn't relate with others, or failed to succeed in life, or if they succeeded too well, our parents loom large. For Nailer, whose father is so powerful and awful, and who is growing up under the exact same pressures that his father grew up in, there is a strong chance that he will become precisely the monster that his father represents.

AV: Both here and in The Windup Girl you often reverse male-female stereotypes. Overall, your female characters are usually stronger, whether mentally or physically, than most of the male characters. Why do you use this theme so consistently in your fiction?

PB: I don't really see it as a reversal, I guess. Strong female characters don't mean male characters are weak. What I think I'm trying to do is show characters of both sexes who are strong in a variety of ways. The thing that makes Blue Eyes dangerous to Nailer is that she's a fighter and an adult who is bigger than he is, but the thing that makes the girl Sloth dangerous is actually that she's smaller than Nailer and she's smart—someone who could take his job away from him. Pima and Sadna are both strong physically, but so is Tool, the ultimate masculine figure. Nailer isn't as strong as a lot of people, but he's quick and he's a thinker. I just like to see lots of people showing their strongest aspects, and sex isn't necessarily the determinant for any of those things.

AV: Nailer’s father, fueled by amphetamines and alcohol, is the embodiment of evil: he breaks Pima’s fingers and scavenges a ship before getting medicine to save his son’s life. What made you choose this unorthodox father and son relationship to drive the underlying themes of your story?

PB: I've always hated the idea that children owe their families, and particularly their parents, anything. Our children didn't ask to be born. We decided to create them for our own selfish reasons. So I don't think our children owe us for their care, for their feeding, or their education. That's their right, and we owe it to them for dragging them into our world.

Even more, I hate the idea that because someone is family, they deserve greater respect or obedience or care than a friend, regardless of their actual behaviors. Too often, it seems like family relationships and obligations and the cliches that we use to describe them are used to justify abuse. Family doesn't matter. Marriage doesn't matter. Day-to-day good behavior, does. I wanted to make the family relationship conditional on good behavior, and when that good behavior doesn't exist, I'm happy to see family broken in favor of something better.

AV: It’s ironic that the uneducated Nailer is able to defeat his father due to a half-man, who teaches Nailer how to read.

PB: The written word is powerful. I come back to that, again and again. It gives us access to so much information, assuming that we have the keys to that initial code. Without it, we're dependent on slower oral traditions, and have no indexes for information. The area where I live in rural Colorado has a fair number of kids who were never taught to read and are ignorant because of it, and it ticks me off, so I was happy to slide that bit my own values into the action of the book.

AV: Can we anticipate a sequel for Ship Breaker?

PB: Yeah. There's definitely going to be a sequel. Some characters will return, and new ones will show up. Tool is definitely coming back, though.

AV: What can your readers look forward to with your next work of fiction?

PB: After the Ship Breaker sequel, it's a little up in the air. I'm contracted to write another couple science fiction novels for adults, and I’ve got some more young adult ideas as well, but if I talk about them, they'll sound stupid, and then I won't have the guts to actually write them.

Click here to purchase The Windup Girl at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Ship Breaker at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010