Paolo Bacigalupi, veteran science fiction writer talks about his award winning novel ‘Windup Girl’, his Indian connection and clears up some mainstream misconceptions about science fiction.
You had four novels rejected before Windup, and still had the willpower to keep going. How did the people around you act?
Well, I guess they acted the way any sane person would act when they encounter someone who has tried to become a novelist for 13 years, and who has failed, and then failed again, and then again, and again… Astonishingly, my wife was supportive the whole time. She never questioned the idea of me writing, and never complained that I was working half-time jobs so I could keep time open for writing. She never expressed doubt about my ability or potential. She never suggested that I just give up and do something else. I’m still amazed at that.
Other people were less supportive. You’d get little offhand comments from people who didn’t believe that you were actually working or doing anything worthwhile. You’d get sort of pitying expressions from people when you told them you were working on a new novel, after your last one had been rejected. You’d get a lot of questions from people who would dismiss you if you had the gall to say you were writer, just because you didn’t have a book published. Becoming a novelist is all about trying to create something that doesn’t exist; it’s hard for people to have faith in an imaginary object. I’m not sure that I had faith in it either. I think I was just ridiculously stubborn.
I think our Indian readers will want to know your wife Anjula is Indian. How often do you visit India?
We go back every several years, mostly to visit family and going to weddings, that sort of thing. Recently we’ve been considering moving back to India for a longer period of time so our son can have a chance to immerse a little more and get to know his cousins better. We’d like him to learn Hindi and to widen his experience of the world beyond what he’s going to get if he continues to grow up in rural Colorado. Also, frankly, I wouldn’t mind improving my own rather pathetic Hindi skills.
You’ve been all over East Asia. It shows in Windup Girl, which was so incredibly immersive. Was the novel inspired by anything particular during your travels? Was there a eureka moment, when it all came together?
I think instead of a eureka moment, it was more like a string of firecrackers, lots of ideas that ended up chained together. There were small starting points, that just grew and grew.
I was in Hong Kong and southern China when SARS hit, and remember the paranoid feeling that you had when people were dying and the Chinese authorities were lying about the extent of the outbreak, so that fed into some of the ideas of the genetically created plagues that are sweeping the world of the Windup Girl. The focus of GM (genetically modified) food came about because I live in a town with a lot of organic farmers, and they’re very alert to the latest depredations of corporations like Monsanto. The first inkling of Emiko, the windup girl herself came from a stewardess on a Japanese airline. I remember that she moved in an oddly robotic, jerky fashion, and for some reason her face and image embedded themselves in my mind.
Thailand has always been interesting to me because of Thailand’s history of fending off western imperialism, even as all the countries around them fell. But so much of the book also became what it was as I was writing it. Megodonts and cheshires and kink springs weren’t there at the start. SoyPRO and UTex Rice weren’t there. A lot of the writing was a process of excavating ideas and then trying to fit them together into something that felt whole and real. Sort of like digging up dinosaur bones and then trying to figure out what kind of creature all the bones can become.
What struck me was how utterly convincing the local characters were. For American writers, even in say ‘literary’ fiction, this is quite rare. Have you gotten any feedback from Thailand?
I’ve had some Thai readers fall in love with the book and recommend it wholeheartedly to their friends. I’ve also had people raging at me for my failures. It’s a mixed bag. One of my favorite responses was that a Thai movie director asked to buy the film rights. I was really flattered by that. Overall, the response has been a lot more positive than I expected, given that I’m such an outsider. I worried about that quite a lot in the early days, but over time, as responses have come in—not just from Thailand, but from Japan and Malaysia and the U.S. and the U.K.—I’ve been struck by the wide range of responses, and how much the response is determined not by the book, but by the interpretive lenses that people put on it.
Overall, the range of responses to The Windup Girl aren’t all that different from the responses I get when I write essays about my own home town in rural western Colorado. Even when you write about a place that you grew up in and know well, the truths you unearth will ring false to some of the people you have grown up with, and who share your life. They’ll have a different experience of your home town, your culture, your shared history, and it’s striking how individual and personal these interpretations end up being, and how specific our lenses are. My truth turns out not to be my best friend’s truth, let alone the truth of the woman who runs the coffee shop. Some of my neighbors will affirm everything I write, and some of my neighbors will tell me that I don’t know squat about the place I grew up in. Of course, as a writer you’d love it if everyone loved your writing, but really, as long as I’m getting a diverse range of responses, from a diverse range of people, I’m content. I take it all in, listen to the accolades and critiques, and see what I can learn from all of it.
You’re a cyberpunk fan. Is there a reason computers are not that central in your work? Isn’t there a contradiction in having such advanced generipping techs, but steam power and spring-torsion at the same time?
Actually, I tend to think that asymmetric advances in technology are the most interesting ones. Is it a contradiction to plow a field with a cow, but also to own a cellphone? Is it a contradiction that we have communication devices that are as powerful as the ones in STAR TREK, but we still drive around in vehicles that burn prehistoric plants and animals for power? One technology doesn’t necessarily interact or intersect with another. As for me, there are plenty of fantastic writers thinking about computers and their impacts on society. I feel like I’m best used by focusing on other things, so I try to create futures that feel different from those ones that are already being done well by other people.
Windup Girl was set in a world you had already established in other stories. What would be your pick for the best introduction to your work?
I sometimes think that my short stories are the best place to start. You get a range of experiences, and if you like those, you’ll probably like my long fiction. But then, I’ve found such a range of responses that I sort of shrug and say give something a shot, and see what happens. Some people believe that SHIP BREAKER is my best book, and others say it’s THE WINDUP GIRL. I can’t really predict.
The reason I ask is because of this mainstream tendency to think that a lot of science fiction is too self-referential for the uninitiated.
No one says that 1984 is inaccessible. BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley? THE HANDMAID’S TALE, by Margaret Atwood? They’re all entirely accessible, and they all are science fiction. Science fiction has a number of diverse strains. Some of those can be very tightly connected to a conversation that stretches back through other science fiction authors, with their interpretations of technology and potential futures. If you’re reading some of Vernor Vinge’s or Charles Stross’ work, it’s helpful to have read some Neal Stephenson, and some William Gibson. It helps you acclimatize to their conversation about networks, computers and a digital future.
For me, I try to write stories that anyone can drop into and immerse in. The world you find on those first pages may be unfamiliar but the story should unpack itself, bit by bit, explaining and illuminating as you go, until you reach a point where the strange future and its slang and its assumptions and references all have as much meaning to you as they do to the characters themselves. At that point, it’s really beside the point about whether you’re reading science fiction or literary fiction or something else. You’re just reading a story.
Readers who don’t read ‘hard’ sci-fi have some misconceptions about the genre, like: good science fiction should predict the future accurately.
I sure hope that I’m not predicting the future accurately. If I am, we’ve done a lot of things very badly. But seriously, in some cases, sure, science fiction can turn out to be predictive. But in a lot more cases I think it can actually be inspirational. Neal Stephenson wrote about virtual reality in SNOW CRASH, and the computer science geeks who read that book liked the ideas so much they created the MMO called ‘Second Life’. Stephenson didn’t predict the future, he actively inspired it. That’s powerful stuff.
In other cases, SF can function as a warning, and in those cases it’s seldom interested in the future per se, it’s actually trying to comment on the present. When I wrote THE WINDUP GIRL, I wanted to look at GM foods, and ask the question, “If companies like Monsanto control every aspect of our food supply, what kind of world might our children inherit?” I’m not predicting that Monsanto is going to take over (though they’re doing a pretty good job of it), or that everyone’s going to end up with cheshires (chameleon cats) for pets, I’m trying to create a lens for interpreting what’s happening right now, in the present, as Monsanto goes about patenting rice genes and creating sterile seeds. In this sort of scenario, science fiction is a chance for us not so much to look at the future, but to look at the present in a new way, so that we can see it more clearly and understand the implications of the present moment.
You clearly hate capitalism. In your work, whenever science is used as a tool for increasing capitalist profit it screws up. Badly. And people remain savages in spite of technological advances.
Well, I wouldn’t say I hate capitalism. I’d say that I hate any ideology that claims to be the solution to everything. Capitalism just strikes me as being the sum of human activities, unregulated, and unfettered–and that can be massively destructive. Capitalism is human nature. We feed and we excrete. We consume and we pollute. We take what we want, and we leave wreckage behind. We’re just organisms with appetites, and capitalism is a tool feeding those appetites. On the other hand, with care and attention, with thoughtful regulation and a guiding hand on the markets, capitalism probably also provides our best opportunity to harness human genius and innovation. In that sense, capitalism is just a tool, like a hammer or wrench, or a car or a gun. We have choices about how we use our tools, where we point them, how careful we are with them.
Is this a commentary on basic human nature being unchanging, or what happens to human nature when capitalism is allowed to flourish unhindered?
If there’s anything I’ve noticed about human nature, it’s that very few of us have the discipline to think about how our small actions today will create ripple effects that will be felt by our children and grandchildren. A lot of my fiction goes on the assumption that we will continue to be uncaring or blind to that.
A lot of what I write goes on the assumption that we’re going to continue to worship the idea of capitalism while denigrating any other value that might harness or challenge it. Unfettered capitalism produces and has produced poisoned towns, wasteful products, an unsustainable demand cycle, and global warming. It gives us the short-term pleasure at the expense of our long-term well-being.
For our Indian readers, could you recommend some must-reads so they can update themselves with science fiction?
It’s always hard to build must-read lists, just because they’re so freighted with personal preferences and personal nostalgia, but some of the books that I love and that have informed my understanding of science fiction have been: 1984 by George Orwell, BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley, THE DISPOSESSED by Ursula Leguin, along with NEUROMANCER and MONA LISA OVERDRIVE by William Gibson. For very easy entry science fiction, ENDERS GAME by Orson Scott Card is good; and Robert A. Heinlein’s CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY, though quite old, still retains its feeling of adventure for me. More recently, and more current, I’d recommend FEED by MT Anderson, LITTLE BROTHER by Cory Doctorow, and HALTING STATE by Charles Stross. For pure fun reading, one of my recent favorites has been John Scalzi’s THE ANDROID’S DREAM, and in that vein James S.A. Corey’s LEVIATHAN WAKES is a space adventure that is quite addictive.