By 2002, Bacigalupi was ready to abandon his dream of publishing a novel. "When I didn't sell any of those, I kind of gave up," he says. "I was stuck with this feeling that I was just an absolute failure as a novelist."


Most mornings of the week, Bacigalupi leaves his house on the mesa and heads into Paonia, where he rents a small office above a bookstore, a block from the main drag. The room is spartan: a few books and posters and a high, small table in the corner for his laptop. Bacigalupi puts in long hours in the room. Most of the time he writes standing up.

Ziegler, his former schoolmate, keeps an office across the hall, where he, too, writes science fiction. (A story of Ziegler's won first place in a Rocky Mountain News contest a few years ago; he plans to have a novel ready for market by the end of the summer.) The two friends take walks together, discussing story problems and breaking up the isolation of the day. Occasionally Ziegler sneaks into Bacigalupi's office to rearrange things, just to get a rise out of him.

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.

"I've always been impressed by how dedicated he is," Ziegler says. "It's a rare weekend when he doesn't go down to the office. He's there when I show up, and he's there until five o'clock. He puts in a full day. He's always been like that."

Bacigalupi moved back to Paonia ten years ago, in the midst of his series of novels that didn't sell. It was supposed to be a brief period of respite for him and Anjula; instead, she found a decent teaching job and Bacigalupi became the webmaster at High Country News, where he'd worked briefly years earlier. And he began to tinker with short stories again.

"Writing was a bone he just couldn't put down," Ziegler says. "I think he figured out that he belonged in science fiction and, in a very methodical fashion, he went about creating a name for himself through short stories."

Bacigalupi says there was no grand plan, just a need to do something. "The conclusion I came to was that even if I couldn't sell books, I still liked the process of writing," he says. "I'm less crazy and unhappy when I'm writing. And the one spot where I'd had any success at all was that short story."

Yet the stories that Bacigalupi began to produce now were more elaborate, more trenchant and certainly more bizarre than "A Pocketful of Dharma." Each one was a quantum leap in his maturity as a writer, the work of a Swiftian who'd finally found the right outlet for his savage social criticism. The first one published, "The Fluted Girl," presented sisters whose young bodies have been transformed into musical instruments, required to perform for the pleasure of an insufferably cruel and pretentious oligarchy — on one level, a satiric attack on the yuppification of Paonia.

Subsequent stories had a strong relationship to the work of environmental journalists in the area. "He was soaking up what was going on at High Country News and across the West," says Nijhuis. "I would be talking about invasive species or the effect of climate change on the water supply, and that would plant a seed. Paolo has a fierce imagination, and it never seems to stop working. He'd take that seed and he'd nurture it, and it would grow into this scary plant."

An item in HCN about a dog found wandering in a mine-tailings pit in Montana prompted "The People of Sand and Slag," a searing portrait of an age in which mankind has thoroughly adapted to its polluting ways. Indefatigable industrial workers eat sand and mine waste, regenerate limbs and engage in extreme body modification out of boredom. ("Lisa had done my glowspine, a sweet tracery of lime landing lights that ran from my tailbone to the base of my skull.") But when the crew finds a genuine dog somehow surviving in their toxic workplace, the extent to which they have lost any connection with the natural world — and their own humanity — becomes painfully apparent.

The piece was Bacigalupi's first serious effort to use the genre to convey a message beyond the exigencies of plot. "I went through these stages," he says, "from how to put together a compelling story to how to use a compelling story to say something more."

Other ecodisaster pieces followed. In "The Tamarisk Hunter," first published in HCN, severe drought has depopulated western Colorado, leaving a handful of scavengers trying to earn "water bounty" by removing water-sucking shrubs from the banks of the oversubscribed Colorado River while martial law tightens its grip:

"When California put its first calls on the river, no one really worried. A couple of towns went begging for water. Some idiot newcomers with bad water rights stopped grazing their horses, and that was it. A few years later, people started showering real fast. And a few after that, they showered once a week. And then people started using the buckets.... The problem wasn't lack of water or an excess of heat, not really. The problem was that 4.4 million acre-feet of water were supposed to go down the river to California. There was water; they just couldn't touch it."

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