Paolo Bacigalupi is the award winning author of The Water Knife, The Windup Girl, the YA Ship Breaker series, The Doubt Factory, and many, many short stories. He was recently in Denver to celebrate the release of The Water Knife in paperback. Paolo and Fiction Unbound’s CS Peterson sat down over a cup of coffee to talk about the power of science fiction, inspirations, and the writing process.
CS Peterson: There is a theme that comes up again and again as I read your work. It’s this feeling that the characters within these worlds, under stress, desperate to survive, are struggling to get a grasp on the big picture and failing. Hock Seng, the yellow card man in The Windup Girl, is reeling from the loss of his life before the purge, trying to understand and play all the angles in his present chaos. Maria’s dad in The Water Knife talks about how the world was before the drought and dies unable to grasp that it would never be that way again. Is this something that you’re thinking about when you’re writing, a reflection of a character’s attempt to find cause as they suffer, a human impulse to know and control or something else?
Paolo Bacigalupi: I’ve been thinking about this lately with The Water Knife. Maria is definitely a character that’s trying to figure out the template to live in now, what’s the actual narrative that is going on. In almost all my writing I’m interested in exploring the idea that we can think that the dominant narrative is going in one direction and then we get sideswiped by something else. I’m fascinated by black swans, the unanticipated event that changes everything. I’m particularly interested in the idea that we can get stuck thinking that we understand the world, barreling down these sort of strange narrative tunnels, not realizing that we’re missing important data. In The Wind Up Girl everybody is doing all their political and business machinations and then the wind up girl comes in and pops everything open.
BP: Right! In The Water Knife Maria is a dismissed character in much of the story and yet she turns out to be the person who is going to define the outcomes. This whole picture strikes me as being very much our present moment. I have a certain amount of faith that because I got in my car yesterday and drove to work that I’m going to be able to get in my car tomorrow and it will always continue that way. Real estate prices have always gone up therefore they will always go up. It’s built on our direct linear experience but it doesn’t really ever get down to questions like “Where did all that food come from and how did it get to here? How tenuous is that supply chain?” Every once in a while you see something break. I was in Texas during the drought in 2011, just starting to think about The Water Knife. It was interesting to me that water literally was power. They were having problems with their power grid because, it turned out, they needed enough water in their dams to generate electricity.
My personality is one that tends to take a moment of prosperity and worry about whether or not it’s for real. You may think “things are good today” but how do you know things are good? What could break it? What could screw things up? How do you know things will be good tomorrow? My wife actually thinks that this makes me a fairly miserable person to be around. But there are hidden connections to our prosperity that we don’t really recognize. I think that we don’t have a grip on how tenuous some of those are.
CSP: So can anyone actually see the big picture? How does writing science fiction help with that? Is it even possible, if there is the potential of some black swan coming in out of left field to change everything?
PB: I think the function of writing these broken futures is to create a future world that contextualizes the present. We aren’t bio-adapted to deal with abstract threats or future concerns. We are very well designed to weigh the present moment, the immediate threat. Ideally, with fiction you can hack the human brain and make that future feel real long before it is. I send people out into this really crazy strange future, right? It’s all broken, it's all fucked up. But the way I think about it is like a rubber band. I stretch it all the way out, and when the reader snaps back into this present moment suddenly they’re looking around and it's like they’ve got a different set of eyes.
There’s a picture of Lake Mead above the Hoover Dam, with a white line like a bath tub ring showing the high water mark. Before reading The Water Knife that might be just a picture. After, a reader can see it as a terrifying object! With The Windup Girl, a reader might come back and then read about how Monsanto has sued some farmer for buying and planting unlabeled Monsanto seed and winning an IP infringement case. Now it’s interesting, whereas before it would have been an abstract story.
CSP: So then how do you see science fiction function in terms of templates for the future? Do you start with the present and react to trends you see? Or do writers, in some sense, create templates that are self-fulfilling prophecies, catching readers' imaginations and propelling us into that particular vision of the future?
PB: I do think that fiction can act as both. It can either say “come hither” as something that beckons to us and becomes the myth that we want to live into, or function as a warning. Something like George Orwell’s 1984 is not the template that we want to live into. But it gives us a language and a set of metaphors to talk about the hazards of our new social world. When we say “Big Brother” now it invokes an entire basket of metaphors that are contained inside of that book. When you talk about surveillance, when you talk about the intrusiveness of government, when you talk about doublespeak or any of these kinds of things now we have a tool set to identify “that thing that is a problem.” If you don’t have the language to identify it, you can’t get a grip on it. Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash or old school science fiction, classic Heinlein and Asimov, these are very much template-building “here is the future, we’re living towards it”—not as a warning but an enticement.
However, I think that when I come to writing science fiction in the present day, the world is so fundamentally broken it is hard to be positive. We aren’t stopping mass extinctions, we aren’t stopping global warming. We’re talking about those things, but we aren’t actually doing very much. So there’s a danger, I think, that writing a positive future can easily end up as consolatory, where you’d say “I’m sure we clever monkeys will get it together!” But I don’t really buy that right now. We aren’t getting it together.
I think the extent that I can write about a positive future is contained in something like Ship Breaker. There I was interested in trying to create an inspirational direction for sustainable tech. A lot of sustainability isn’t very interesting. Wind turbines aren’t interesting, solar panels aren’t interesting. There is nothing marketably sexy about using less. I wanted to find a way to describe a sustainable technology that was as fast and sleek and as sexy as our latest consumer items. It’s a much more inspiring way to talk about sustainability.
CSP: You’ve hooked me. I want to go on an ocean-bound clipper ship with hydrofoils and high-altitude sails!
PB: Right! There is the whiff of adventure about all that. You want to instill that into the technology. I like the idea of having a global economy based on wind and sail because we did once. I was interested in what we would do now, with everything that we know about hydrodynamics, material science and physics. What kind of clipper ships would we make today? Because even if we ran out of oil, even if we ran out of all other energy sources, we wouldn’t automatically become dumb monkeys. We could build better sailing ships than we’ve ever built in the past. That was the jumping off point.
CSP: Many of our readers are writers as well. In your writing process, where do you start? Is it with the trend lines and templates of terrifying futures? Black swan events that will disrupt the world we know? Or do you begin in the story, or with particular characters?
PB: I start with my anxieties. Or the topic being weird enough or unnerving enough somehow that it holds attention for me. With The Water Knife I’d originally written a short story, the “Tamarisk Hunter.” I felt like this was done. Other people will come along and write about it. It’s not a necessary story to be told by me. Then in 2011, when I was down in Texas, that changed. It was a combination of seeing Texas being devastated by a drought that exactly matched what climate models say future Texas will look like. There was this unnerving feeling of “Oh! This is time traveling! Right now I just *woosh* stepped in to the future, look at me! This is future Texas and it looks scary as hell!” That was interesting to me in itself, that moment where you realize that strange feeling of time travel. Combined with that, then we have Rick Perry going around and praying for rain.
CSP: That’s where the Merry Perrys came from in The Water Knife?
PB: Right, and you see those two trend lines—future drought looks terrible, future Texas looks terrible, leadership completely in denial, completely engaged in magical thinking—and then to me as a science fiction writer I say “where does this go?” If this goes on, what will the world look like?
Part of it is a sense of moral outrage, I think I have to write this story after all because nobody else is dealing with it in a sufficient way. Then I start to think about how to make this world real and visceral. I’m going to use drought. Where am I going to place this? Probably go back to the Colorado River because I know those political dynamics, and it's a great place to talk about drought and water scarcity, engineering techno fixes—all that kind of stuff. So I start from that really high-level topic, and then I start layering down into the project of trying to tell a story.
I did the same with The Drowned Cities. I had this place that had whipped itself up and fallen into perpetual war, and now I wanted to talk about that. So who are the characters who are going to illustrate that? Someone like Malia, who’s a war orphan, and she’s got her hand chopped off—okay, so there’s one of the characters. I’m going to start pulling these different threads out of the theme.
CSP: You have a set of different cultures within the big overarching structures of the world, and then the people, the characters, come out of them?
PB: Right. And so like with The Water Knife: I know I want to tell a big story about climate change and drought. I want to tell about people who plan and people who don’t plan. I want to make it a thriller—it's all very carefully constructed in that sense. But how do you make water rights sexy? I’m going to have some kind of McGuffin with a James Bond’y kind of character. Here’s this Water Knife, let's have those, those are cool. But also I’m going to have a journalist so I can get all sorts of different intellectual access points to what is going on in the world, so I can learn more about it. I’m going to have a climate refugee in the story, and at this point I have no fucking idea how I’m going to make her storyline fit. But I want a climate refugee, a climate loser, in this story so that we can see the person who has come out of a massive amount of loss and been completely disenfranchised by that event.
CSP: So you’re looking at different voices and the access that these different voices have in the world you’re building?
PB: Window into the world, right, and all the characters will provide different angles and windows. A lot of times I have these sort of marionette characters initially. So I start thinking of different ways that I can attack that character to make it something more organically real. I’ll write a character's conversation with other people, I’ll make lists of possible slang, I’ll write them having a fight with somebody, I’ll try out different curses on one another, what do they do in their daily life? Anything to get more of their feel. Then I sort of build a plot through that. At least that’s how I think about it right now. This stuff about the writing process, I think it’s the most interesting thing to talk about.
CSP: Me too, I think it’s fascinating. When you’re writing it sounds like you’re doing a lot of writing outside the novel? Or are you going through the drafts adding those layers in that way?
PB: Sometimes it’s in the draft. In The Water Knife I started with drought, I started with destabilized soil, I started with haboob, dust storms. Then dust became a theme. When Angel pulls up at the Hilton there are these big blasts of air running to keep all the dust out of the place the wealthy live.
Some layers come late. Like Clearsacs, they were a late layer for The Water Knife. My editor wanted a little more future tech in the story. I’m not going to tech up the story just for it to be more sci-fi. But Clearsacs, handed out by the Red Cross to recycle pee into drinkable water, reinforce the question of water scarcity and some other value systems as well.
CSP: Because it addresses class and who’s got access to what.
PB: Right, there is another interesting access point. I could wire up everybody so that their eyeballs take photos or whatever, but that’s not thematically interesting. It doesn’t build the story, but Clearsacs do. As soon as I came up with them, then I’m thinking I can do this with it and then I can do that with it. They’re going to be blowing around when everything catches on fire and Clearsacs are spinning through the sky on fire—it's delightful! That was a late layer.
But more and more now I try to write without a strong sense of judgement. In the early stages, I’m just going to create a bunch of scenes, knowing that eventually I’m going to write a book. Maybe one of these scenes will make it, but a lot of them are just attacks on the problem of who this character is. What is the starting point for this person?
I find that when I force a story it just turns into crap. Instead I spend more time doing creative play on the front end, where I’m not going to judge whatever comes out. Make discoveries, ask questions, try out scenes. Each time there is a layer that I get from it. I’ve done that with short stories too, where when I start it is from this really nonjudgemental spot. There was a story I was writing on contract—I’d been asked to submit a story to an anthology. It was for a YA anthology, and so I thought, “Oh jeez. Okay. I don’t want to have too much sex on the page. Since it’s a YA anthology, it would be really smart if I set it in the Ship Breaker universe. I don’t want to be inappropriate in this scene.” Finally I said, “Screw it! I’m going to write the worst story. I will give it to them and they will reject it and I will be out! I’ll be fine.” I sat down and I wrote a bad story, an inherently rejectable story. But as I was doing that, little pieces and ideas popped in and suddenly there was something interesting. Who knew?
I think that it's very difficult to give yourself permission, particularly in this era of being a writer. Everything you do is critiqued heavily, you will have instant feedback online, everything you do will be hassled from any number of directions. I think you have to be much more aware of all of those voices, both ill intentioned and well intentioned, in your head. Kill them off and go spend some time in a creative space where there is no judgement. Because you’re not going to get to the good stories until you get that out of the way.
CSP: What are you working on next?
PB: I’m interested in looking at the East Coast, in the same world as The Water Knife. For YA, I’m working on a third book in the Ship Breaker series, centered around Tool, a genetically engineered character who has been in the past two books.
CSP: I can’t wait! All the best of luck to you. And thank you for visiting the Fiction Unbound blog.
PB: Of course! It’s been my pleasure.