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Bacigalupi says he may have a dismal view of humanity, but that doesn't mean he isn't a fan of man's cooler inventions, including bicycles and computers. "It's not technology's fault that it's devastating," he says. "We're the people who aim it in certain directions and fail to envision what the consequences of our developments are going to be. An individual car is never a problem; it's when we have 350 million of them. We're good at solving the short-term problem and ignoring the long-term consequence."
Lassen, of Night Shade Books, The Windup Girl's publisher, says that Bacigalupi is one of the few sci-fi authors seriously exploring the implications of issues such as global warming rather than using them as window dressing. "Right now in science fiction there's a strong tendency toward nostalgia," he notes. "A lot of the titles are homages to the grand old masters, stuff like that. Paolo is not writing in a nostalgic mode. He's doing for the 21st century what cutting-edge writers did in the 1960s and 1970s, when they were making science fiction important.
"Writers like [Stanislaw] Lem and [Philip] Dick saw subtle things happening that they amplified and wrote about, so that it resonated with a wider audience down the road. I think Paolo is a perfect example of that."
The day may be approaching when Bacigalupi joins the elite group in his genre who are referred to simply as novelists, without the use of "sci-fi" as a kind of warning label. Certainly, his prose is less stilted, his characters more fully realized, than those of Dick or some of the other prophets of an earlier generation.
"I'm his buddy, so my opinion of him might be considered inflated," says Ziegler. "But I think of him as this generation's Aldous Huxley. He's writing literature, and science fiction just happens to be the best genre for him to communicate what he needs to communicate."
The paperback edition of The Windup Girl is slated to hit stores May 15, just in time to piggyback on the attention surrounding the release of Ship Breaker, Bacigalupi's first foray into the young-adult market. It's a stripped-down chase novel starring clipper ships that use cannon-fired parasails and a budding romance between a capitalist princess and a tough dude from the wrong side of the shipyards — but its adolescent elements aren't so overwhelming as to drive away not-so-young adult readers, too.
The novel was written in a magical month, during a welcome respite from The Windup Girl. "It just felt like it wrote itself," Bacigalupi says. "It was a perfect synergy of ideas I was kicking around, trying to make green technology cool and reach the young-adult market. It was also an opportunity for me to use writing as play rather than work.
"A lot of what I write is so grim and depressing. The stories are designed to hurt. And when I'm writing them, I also feel hurt. It's hard to do. This was an opportunity to write a story that wasn't about hurt, and it felt good."
If Bacigalupi has learned anything from his own journey into darkness, it's that even dystopic writers must have their fun now and then. Last summer he was invited to speak at a symposium on sustainability in Kyoto, Japan. He marveled at the irony of such an invitation, the absurdity of flying halfway around the world to talk about reducing your carbon footprint — then embraced the hypocrisy and took the free trip.
He now has a major publisher (Little, Brown) and potentially a much larger audience in the young-adult field than he's ever enjoyed before — so large, in fact, that Night Shade signed him to a two-book deal to ensure that he keeps writing adult novels, too. ("I knew I had to put significant money on the table to keep him writing science fiction for me," Lassen says.) Yet he frets about how best to get children, especially boys, to read books, and whether his 1,500-square-foot house is too much dwelling for three people.
He agonizes over the trade-offs of raising his son in a place like Paonia. It's nice to run into people, he says, except when you don't want to see them.
"There are so many layers to living in a small town," he says. "The beauty of community, that you're connected up to all these people, is also the biggest pain in the ass. You lose anonymity. You lose some spontaneity, because what you do today is going to be remembered by everybody tomorrow. History never gets erased in a small town."
But history is not destiny. In the works of Paolo Bacigalupi, change often trumps history. Change can be painful and terrifying, but it must be endured. It cannot be stopped.
And what's so bad about change, anyway? It's not like it's the end of the world.Read Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Gambler" online; for more news about his work, go to his website.