Longform

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

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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."

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?

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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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