He'd taught himself HTML just as Internet services were beginning to blossom and soon found work with a web consulting firm, but the brave new online world wasn't all he'd hoped it would be. It was, he says now, his Dilbert period, a "soul-killing" routine of sitting in a cubicle listening to marketing people explain why their depressingly similar products were unique and deserved a spectacular launch into cyberspace.

"It was all just stuff," Bacigalupi says. "I started feeling the world was just made up of irrelevant stuff. And there was something about living in the city — it all wakes up at the same time, goes to work at the same time, comes home at the same time. I remember feeling so grateful when I got my own cubicle; it was a small office, and we'd been sharing the same space. If you think a cubicle is Shangri-La, something is fucked up."

His mother had sent him a copy of The Weekend Novelist, by Robert J. Ray, a how-to guide for writing a novel in your spare time. Bacigalupi started doing the exercises, trying to shape characters and plots. It started out as a hobby, something individual and creative that he didn't have to share with other people. Something that told him he wasn't just a cog in a big, sputtering machine.

Paolo Bacigalupi crafts his dispatches from the future in a small office in Paonia, a place where "history never gets erased."
Paolo Bacigalupi crafts his dispatches from the future in a small office in Paonia, a place where "history never gets erased."
Upon its 2009 release, The Windup Girl drew rave reviews; Time called it one of the top ten works of fiction of the year.
Upon its 2009 release, The Windup Girl drew rave reviews; Time called it one of the top ten works of fiction of the year.

Over time he hammered out a novel. It was science fiction because that was what he'd grown up reading, from Robert Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy to the Gor series by John Norman to the decidedly more "literary" output of J.G. Ballard and William Gibson. The story was set in China, a good excuse to go abroad again for several months to do research.

The manuscript expanded but never seemed quite finished. He and Anjula moved to Denver. When William Gibson came to the Tattered Cover for a signing, Bacigalupi decided to collar his hero and plead for help.

"I asked him how he broke in," Bacigalupi says. "He told me, 'I wrote short stories until someone took me seriously enough to buy a novel from me.' So I went and bought a copy of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a copy of Asimov, a copy of Analog. I read them all and thought, 'I need to write a story that will blow people away and do more than these do.'"

He wrote a Gibsonesque piece about a datacube that contains the consciousness of the Dalai Lama and took it to a workshop in Telluride. Novelists Elizabeth Hand and John Clute were enthusiastic but pointed out certain cyberpunk clichés. Revised, "A Pocketful of Dharma" finally appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1999.

Bacigalupi found an agent for his novel and figured he was finally on his way. But the path to respectability through the cold void of sci-fi was more difficult than he realized. The novel was shopped and shopped, to no avail. A lowball offer finally arrived, but the agent explained that if he accepted it, the book would receive a small printing, no promotion — and probably vanish immediately, forcing its author to start over under a pseudonym. Bacigalupi turned the deal down.

Around the same time, he received an unexpected phone call from the dean of science fiction.

"This is Harlan Ellison," the caller said. "Do you know who I am?"

Bacigalupi, who was mopping his floor at the time, stammered out a response. (Now 75, the prolific Ellison has had an indelible impact on science fiction in film, television and prose since the 1950s.)

Ellison had just read "A Pocketful of Dharma," and he proceeded to critique the story in excruciating detail, line by line. Evidently he'd been impressed by it, but he also saw room for improvement. And he wanted Bacigalupi (whose name, he remarked, sounded like a pseudonym or a joke) to avoid getting pigeonholed in the genre. "Don't get stuck in it like I got stuck in it," he said, and hung up.

After the many rejections of his first novel, Bacigalupi was inclined to take the advice to heart. If he couldn't be a science-fiction novelist, maybe he should try another approach. Over the next four years, between working various jobs and living off savings, he wrote three more novels.

One was historical fiction set in China. One was a highbrow "love of landscape" kind of book about Paonia. The third was a mystery with action that moved from Hong Kong to Colorado. All three made the rounds of publishing houses and were politely declined.

"I think he was trying to find his voice," says Rob Ziegler, a Paonia writer who's known Bacigalupi since they were both fourteen. "Everybody who read his stuff knew he had talent."

Ziegler remembers the mystery well. "It was clever, sharp, acerbic — and full of heart," he says. "On a line-by-line level, Paolo's very quick and can grab those precise details that make it all work. But nobody knew what it was or what to do with it. His agent shopped it, and it met with silence."

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