Why Paolo Bacigalupi feels it's time for sci-fi to change

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Sci-fi is long overdue for a change. At least according to Paolo Bacigalupi, whose first novel, The Windup Girl, addresses a different sort of change—climate change—with vigorous candor. It's not that Bacigalupi dislikes the old-style expansive sci-fi of space exploration, but he feels a shift in subject matter is necessary.

"I think the traditional tropes of science fiction are great. The old SF 'consensus future' was grounded in the explosion of aerospace technology and the Cold War, which seemed to make a certain set of futures inevitable—we were either getting off this rock or we were going to blow ourselves up. Those stories had power because they reflected the zeitgeist of the moment. I grew up on those stories, and they inspired me. But at some point you look around and realize there's a dissonance between SF's imagined future and our own current trends.

"And then you notice that while we can point to individual SF works that focus on topics like resource depletion and overpopulation, there doesn't seem to be a dominant tradition of doing so. Certainly nothing like the identifiable trends of New Wave, or cyberpunk. It all seems to get lumped under the general concept of 'dystopia.'

"Over time, it's gotten harder for me to create futures that don't at least pay lip service to the astonishing changes that we're wreaking on the only planet we'll ever have. Global warming, mass extinctions, population growth, chemical pollution, the end of cheap energy—I think that in order for science fiction to remain a relevant literature, it needs to grapple seriously with these puzzles. We do a very good job of playing with the possible futures of technology—the toys, if you will; but we seem to do a poorer job of looking at things like ecosystem services—the things that provide the basic building blocks of human prosperity, and how we're affecting them."

In discussing climate change honestly, SF has to make room for a good deal of pessimism. Bacigalupi says, "Catastrophe isn't inevitable, I suppose. But I'd have to see us do something like aggressively tax carbon or ban coal burning to believe that we're changing course. So far, we just aren't sending the right pricing signals to the markets to create a sustainable future. If clean energy and other mitigations are going to have an effect, we have to be using them right now. The last I checked, my computer was still burning coal for its electricity, so I'd say we're headed for some hard times, and still accelerating." 

The Windup Girl is set in near-future Thailand. "This was mostly by accident, initially. I was in Thailand during the hot season, right when the SARS epidemic hit, and it really made an impression on me. I spent about a week in Bangkok in a delirium of heat exhaustion and fear, and I couldn't shake the experience after I left. There's a reason my future Bangkok is loaded with deadly lurking illnesses and sweltering heat and uncertainty. But as I did more research into the country's culture and history, the story really started to coalesce and I started finding themes that resonated—Thailand's long history of independence despite Western imperialism, its political unrest, its vulnerability to global warming, its barely managed poverty—and then, of course, the ngaw. As soon as I ate one of those bizarre fruits, I knew that I had to find a way to place it in the story somewhere."

The novel's title character, Emiko, is one of the New People, essentially a manufactured slave class—a classic SF motif. "I do seem to have a fascination with genetically modified people who are often superior to their 'natural' human owners and yet forced to remain subservient—at least for a time. On some levels, I'm interested in the idea of owing duty to people who don't really deserve it. Emiko fits this model. Even after she's been abandoned in Bangkok she has a hard time blaming her former owner, though she has more than enough cause."

Bacigalupi likewise envisages the artificial plagues ravaging the world of The Windup Girl as a symbol for amoral socio-economic systems. He declares, "In my mind, the plagues represent the logical profit-maximizing patterns of large-scale corporations. Thanks to their need to satisfy shareholders, publicly traded companies are a strange hotbed of astonishing innovation and antisocial behavior. Car companies tore out trolley lines to get rid of a competing industry. Energy companies spend millions to create doubt over global warming. The agricultural plagues in The Windup Girl might seem extreme, but we have plenty of daily examples which are just as interesting." 

Gibbons, the hidden-but-not-hidden, plague-ridden mastermind figure at the heart of The Windup Girl, bears an enormous symbolic weight—he represents the hubris and genius that precipitated the climate disasters and plagues in the first place; John Clute suggests in his SCI FI Wire review of the novel that Gibbons is Faust and Kurtz and much besides. But Bacigalupi doesn't feel all the blame for eco-catastrophe can be laid on Gibbons and people like him. "I love Gibbons. He's very pure. Delightfully amoral and derisive of nostalgic notions of preservation and nature. A champion of change. But he's too much larger than life to be credible. I think our real disasters are made up of sad synergies between the basic human desire for a little more comfort and the inevitable workings of markets as we seek to satisfy those desires. Our crises are all distributed ones, where everyone shares a little blame but can't credit that our small actions add up to a devastating whole. I would much prefer that someone like Gibbons were to blame. It would be so much simpler."

In the interests of distributing the crisis, Bacigalupi uses a lot of contrasting viewpoint characters in The Windup Girl. "I had no idea how complex I was making the book when I started out. But I knew I wanted to create a very multi-layered, lived-in version of future Bangkok, with some outsider perspectives and some insider perspectives, so that the conflicts would be humanized. I didn't want paperboard people fighting simple and obvious wars. I wanted the future to feel as complex as the present currently seems. Well, that, and there were a few characters who I created and loved so much that I couldn't resist giving them more time on stage."

Bacigalupi, in closing, doesn't rule out a sequel, but is somewhat doubtful of one. "If readers finish The Windup Girl and feel hungry for more, then I'll be very pleased, but much as when you visit a foreign country, I suspect it's better to leave while you still like it. I hope that people will close the book, excited at the prospect that some of the characters still have epic journeys and accomplishments ahead, even if we aren't around to observe their every move."