Longform

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

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By the time he finished Oberlin in 1994, Bacigalupi had made several trips to China. The first one came not long after the Tiananmen Square massacre; the country felt "very locked down and paranoid," he recalls, and he began to wonder if he'd made a mistake pursuing East Asian studies. But subsequent visits went better as his confidence in navigating another culture grew. He took an immersion language course that left him dreaming in Chinese. After graduating, he decided to find a job in China: "It seemed less threatening, somehow, than looking for work in the United States."

He worked for a few months for a Chinese company that consulted with foreign corporations trying to break into the emerging private sector. He eventually came back to join his college girlfriend, Anjula, in Boston. (They married in 1998.) But he discovered that many aspects of American life that he'd taken for granted before — the excess of goods and cars, the lavish supermarkets, even the squirrels running rampant in a park — seemed jarring.

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.

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.)

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast

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