Longform

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

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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.

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."

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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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