Sci-fi phenom Paolo Bacigalupi has seen the future -- and it's scary as hell

Paolo Bacigalupi is staring at his lunch.

Tortilla chips, salsa, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — thrown together in the kitchen of his home on a mesa outside of Paonia, and pretty boring by anybody's culinary standards. But Bacigalupi, a novelist with a nearly unpronounceable name (BAH-cha-ga-loo-py) and a fixation with the half-hidden horrors of contemporary life, gazes on this humble meal with a growing sense of unease.

Just what, he wonders, is he about to put in his body? Yes, it's all familiar American foodstuffs, and yet — where did it come from? Every single item came from a factory somewhere, okay, but how did it get there? The corn, the fruit — he has no idea of their origins, no real connection to what he consumes.

Millions of Americans are clueless about the etiology of their own lunch. But for Bacigalupi, what starts out as a rant quickly begins to take the shape of a story. Somewhere in the jelly is what remains of a strawberry grown in California, probably nurtured by water from the Colorado River, water flowing a thousand miles from practically out his back door to a faraway valley filled with factory farms. Water dammed, diverted and extracted so that legions of field hands and processing plant workers and truckers and God-knows-who-else can join in the humongous undertaking that ends with this mysterious dollop of dark goo sitting on his plate, staring back at him.

"If you think about it, you can start to see these extreme supply chains, the amount of technological kapow behind this simple lunch," Bacigalupi says. "A wise human would have an understanding of the supply chain and how the pieces fit together. But it's against our nature to think about it."

Bacigalupi spends a lot of time thinking about such things, spinning dark, dystopian fables about what the world might be like in a few decades if we continue down the path we're headed. His specialty as a storyteller is the post-apocalyptic nightmare: dispatches from a future ravaged by war, climate change, an unraveling economy based on fossil fuels, breakdowns in the supply chain, technology collapsing or run amok. Grim and often violent, these are also smart, haunting tales about man's quest for survival and his genius for adaptation — not always for the better. And they have made Bacigalupi, at 37, one of the most critically acclaimed and provocative authors in science fiction today.

Until a few months ago, Bacigalupi's readers could be described as more of a cult following than a mass audience. His reputation rested on a well-received but slender body of short stories that had appeared in sci-fi magazines and anthologies and were collected in 2008 in his first published book, Pump Six and Other Stories.

Then came the release last fall of his debut novel, The Windup Girl, to ecstatic reviews. Set in a future Thailand, the densely layered work features intrigues over genetically altered food, bio-engineered plagues, efforts to store kinetic energy in giant springs — and a cybernetic geisha girl, built for pleasure but capable of far more than she knows.

"Makes Blade Runner look like it was shot on plywood backdrops in someone's garage," gushed one reviewer. Other critics hailed Bacigalupi as a worthy successor to William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. The American Library Association declared The Windup Girl the best science-fiction novel of 2009. Time listed it among the ten best works of fiction of the year, period.

The novel has since gone through four printings and been named a finalist for several top sci-fi awards, including the Nebula, the Locus and even the Hugo. (It's rare for a first novel to make the Hugo list, which is voted on by fans who attend the annual World Science Fiction Convention — and thus depends heavily on name recognition.)

Bacigalupi's following could soon increase exponentially. Hitting bookstores this week is Ship Breaker, his young-adult novel about teenagers scavenging abandoned oil tankers on a bleak, exhausted Gulf Coast after the immersion of New Orleans. Although it may seem like a strange choice for such a brooding author — imagine Cormac McCarthy's The Road retooled for tweens — the young-adult market is much larger than that for adult science fiction and seems particularly attuned to dark fantasies, from Twilight to Suzanne Collins's "Hunger Games" series. Bacigalupi is already at work on a sequel, and film interest is percolating.

Everything seems to be happening at once in Bacigalupi's career, but like a lot of overnight sensations, his breakthrough was actually years in the making. Behind his sudden success lies more than a decade of toil, frustration and bitter doubts about his future as a writer — along with a pile of rejected manuscripts. Some editors regarded his work as "too dark" for publication; even The Windup Girl was turned down by several major publishing houses before it became a critical and commercial hit.