By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Sometimes the stories struck entirely too close to home, upsetting Anjula, who wondered why her husband couldn't write something a little upbeat once in a while. For "Pop Squad," a grim parable about police assassins hunting down dissident women who refuse youth-preserving treatments and insist on furtively having children, Bacigalupi dressed some rugrats targeted for elimination in his own son's clothes. In "Softer," a Denver man impulsively smothers his wife after she nags him about housework. Anjula's initial critique of the story, Bacigalupi remembers, consisted of three words: "Don't touch me."
Bacigalupi's early work had been greeted with suspicion or distaste by some editors, who considered it too depressing or outrageous for publication. ("As a mother, this story disturbs me," one wrote about one of his first novels.) But as his short stories emerged in various magazines, the buzz began about a new, noirish voice on the "hard" science-fiction scene — especially after one story, "The Calorie Man," won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best short fiction. Among the believers was Night Shade Books, a San Francisco-based house that published Pump Six and Other Stories.
"We very aggressively went after his short fiction collection on its own merits," says Jeremy Lassen, Night Shade's editor-in-chief. "I think Paolo is going to be as important as William Gibson. He very consciously writes science fiction that has a zero entry point. It doesn't require you to have read five or ten years of science fiction to get it on all levels."
Pump Six did well enough on initial release that Night Shade ordered a second printing. Lassen figured he would be stuck with surplus copies for a long time. But since The Windup Girl came out last year, copies of Bacigalupi's short story collection have been snapped up, too. Although it's available as an eBook and a paperback version will be released next winter, hardcover copies of Pump Six now command prices of up to $425 on eBay and Amazon.
In 2003, shortly before his son was born, Bacigalupi returned to Southeast Asia. Travel had always been a way of kick-starting story ideas, but this time he got more than he bargained for.
He started in Hong Kong and journeyed across southern China. It was the hot season, and he was scraping by on little cash, staying in cheap and airless hostels. He soon fell ill — sweating, shaking and vomiting from some vile gut bug. "I was certain I was going to die in this village in the middle of nowhere, thinking, 'This is a really dumb way to die,'" he recalls.
By the time he reached Laos, reports were beginning to spread about the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, in southern China. Bacigalupi had passed through the epidemic's flashpoints, but news of the disease had been so thoroughly suppressed by the state media that he hadn't realized it until he crossed borders and found people wearing masks and treating arrivals from Hong Kong like lepers. Already inclined to paranoia, Bacigalupi became alarmed as he started breaking out in a strange rash. His hands, it seemed, were hosting some bubbly, blistery growth...the skin actually thickening as he watched. Was it the heat? Mutation? Hallucination?
He caught a flight from Bangkok to Tokyo. On the plane, he couldn't keep his eyes off a Japanese stewardess. She wore a blue mask and had a strange spray of freckle-like decorations on the edges of her eyes, but that wasn't the oddest part. Her movements were choppy, stylized, as if she was engaged in some kind of performance, a hybrid of mime or kabuki. "It almost felt like she was slightly robotic," he says.
Like a windup toy.
The trip sent Bacigalupi's imagination into high gear. He began a story that zipped past 10,000 words and kept going. It was a dwarf star, a tangled snarl of plots and characters having to do with "calorie" companies that control the global food supply and develop deadly plagues such as "blister rust" to destroy competing goods; tides of refugees trying to find haven in a battered, overheated Thailand; retro options for power and transportation to replace oil and coal, including dirigibles and giant springs wound by mutated elephants; and a Japanese "windup girl" who attempts to pass as human but whose herky-jerky movements give her away.
Bacigalupi broke off pieces of the dwarf star and published them as individual stories. But friends who saw the ponderous manuscript told him that it was starting to look like a novel.
"I remember having this feeling of horror," Bacigalupi says. "I was thinking, 'There's no way in hell I'm going to write another novel. I could keep pulling pieces out of this for a decade if I want to.' But by that time I was starting to get nominated for all these awards, and I started meeting actual science-fiction writers who did write novels. I thought maybe I should write a novel, and this was the most interesting, ambitious and meaty thing that I had."
The Windup Girl took Bacigalupi three years to complete. The finished book displays more than a passing acquaintance with Thai literature and slang, the mechanics of flywheels and the physics of climate change, in the course of presenting a panoramic view of a world in which struggles for food and energy have converged into a battle over storing and expending calories. Yet, unlike many of the short stories that preceded it, the work is more focused on its characters and enthralling subplots than on conveying a "message." The gradations between good and evil are subtler, the lives of the people caught in this evolving nightmare more complex. (The most sympathetic figure, of course, is Emiko, the more-human-than-human windup girl.) The book also skirts the kind of bald condemnation of technology so common in dystopic science fiction.