Letter From The Editor - Issue 55 - February 2017

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A Dragon's Doula
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Writing Fantasy

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Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Paolo Bacigalupi
    by Darrell Schweitzer

Paolo Baciaglupi seems to have stormed the science fiction field in the first few years of this century. In 2005 he had a Hugo Award nomination for "The People of Sand and Slag." In 2006 he won the Sturgeon Award for "The Calorie Man." His first novel, The Windup Girl (2009), collected a jaw-dropping six awards: Hugo, Nebula, John W. Campbell Memorial Award, Locus Award, the Compton Crook Award, and the Seiun Award (for best novel translated into Japanese). There were other award nominations before that and there have been some since, including a Nebula Award nomination for Best Novella for The Alchemist in 2011, but it was safe to say that with The Windup Girl he definitely had the attention of the science fiction field. His career has not gone predictably since. He has published a humorous book for young adults, Zombie Baseball Beatdown (2013), a thriller for adults about climate-change denial, The Doubt Factory (2014), and two other novels for younger readers, Ship Breaker (2010) and The Drowned Cities (2012). His first book was a collection Pump Six and Other Stories (2008). The Water Knife is forthcoming.

For the curious, he informs us, "my last name is pronounced Batch-i-gah-loo-pee."

SCHWEITZER: Could you give me some idea of who you are, what your background is, your education, etc? What were you doing before you were writing for publication?

BACIGALUPI: My background: In college I majored in East Asian Studies with a focus on Chinese language. I later moved to China to work in business. After that, I turned to internet development, and worked as a web developer for many years. Eventually I ended up as the Online Editor at High Country News, a news magazine that focuses on the environment and social dynamics of the American West -- public lands, natural resources, communities, and science issues, primarily.

SCHWEITZER: What made you suddenly turn to science fiction? You did indeed seem to come out of nowhere a few years ago and grab center stage in science fiction. Is this a matter of being an overnight success after years of effort?

BACIGALUPI: I read science fiction growing up. My father and grandfather were both readers of science fiction, so when I started writing, it seemed natural that those would be the kinds of stories I would try to tell. I had one early success, "Pocketful of Dharma" which was the first short story I ever wrote, but then I spent a long time wandering in the wilderness, writing novels and short stories that didn't sell. By the time I genuinely started to break in, and started selling stories consistently, I think I'd been writing for about ten years and had four failed novels under my belt.

SCHWEITZER: So now you seem an overnight success and at the Cutting Edge of science fiction. Cyberpunk has long since been assimilated. Steampunk seems to be over. So, what is the cutting edge of science fiction and do you feel you're at the edge of it?

BACIGALUPI: Cutting edge . . . I'm not even sure I know what that is. I just want to reach readers and tell stories that feel relevant to me, and I want to make the questions and ideas and worries that engage me feel relevant to others. Science fiction has tools that allow me to do that. But it's not about being cutting edge. It's about telling stories that help us understand our present moment better. Sometimes, it turns out that science fiction isn't even the tool you want, so the most cutting edge thing to do is to not write science fiction at all. When I wanted to write about how our understanding of science is manipulated by corporations, I wrote The Doubt Factory as a contemporary novel, because a science-fictional treatment would have blunted the horror of what respected, publicly-traded, companies legally get away with every day. Science fiction is just a tool. It's a powerful tool, and I love it, but it's not the only tool. And the idea that science fiction stories somehow should be ahead of x, or new in way y, or that z is so dead . . . it just doesn't resonate for me. It's like trying to be the coolest kid in science fiction school. I just want to write stories that start conversations about the world we live in. That's more than hard enough.

SCHWEITZER: What should SF writers be writing about, which they haven't been?

BACIGALUPI: The problem with telling writers what they should write about is that it assumes it's any of my business. I set my own agendas for my stories, whether I'm writing zombie books for kids, or writing public relations caper novels for teens, or writing climate change thrillers for adults. One of the joys of writing is that you get to tell the stories you care about, in whatever way you desire. Some people wish I wouldn't write a book like Zombie Baseball Beatdown because they don't see that as serious work. Alas. They get no vote in my dictatorship of the page. People can accept what you choose to write about, or reject it, but they don't get to decide what you type when you sit down to sweat out a story. I worked for a long time to get rid of the nanny voices of what I should do as a writer, and I sometimes still have to fight against them, so I'm probably not going to jump up to add my own nanny voice to the chorus. The most I would say is that I hope that writers will write stories they care about, and that they'll also find some joy in the process, because really, writing generally doesn't pay well enough to justify it being a miserable experience. Come to think of it, writing also doesn't generally pay well enough to bother listening to what other people think you should write.

SCHWEITZER: Of course all writers secretly yearn for and fear that Faustian bargain of the publisher with the checkbook, who says, "I will give you a huge pile of money to write another book like ____" or even "Zombie Nazi Surfer Cheerleader novels are all the rage now, so that is what we want from you next." So what happens when a sufficient amount of money is waved at your "dictatorship of the page"?

BACIGALUPI: If I was hungry enough, I'd probably write anything. But I think that the goal for a writer is to find win-win scenarios where you get paid and get to write stories that you care about. That's been my goal for a while now, and so far it seems to be working. I don't think that being a published author automatically has to be a zero-sum calculation where you're either "selling out" or staying "true" to your art. I think if you're sufficiently skilled and clever, there are options where you get to feed yourself and feed your soul.

SCHWEITZER: A theme I am noticing in some of your fiction seems to be that the human race will short-sightedly foul the planet beyond repair, but adapt to the result, as in the story "The People of Sand and Slag" in Pump Six and Other Stories, in which the characters seem to thrive on toxic materials and the last real dog in the world (and by implication all natural biological creatures) seems at an evolutionary dead end. I see this in The Windup Girl too. People don't learn better, but they learn. Do you think so? Do we face a future of learning to live up to our necks in our own waste?

BACIGALUPI: I think Ted Chiang said that almost all science fiction is inherently optimistic simply because of the somewhat unfounded assumption that there will be any people at all left in the future. Science fiction carries that false narrative construct in its DNA, thanks to its need for some sort of protagonist to drive a story along. I mean, you could write a story about a global warming Earth that burns like Venus and where all life has been scoured away, but it probably isn't going to be a novel. For myself, I think that we'll get the future that we invest in today, but I'd also say that just because science fiction needs people to form narrative, the ecosystems that we're currently undermining don't give a damn about whether there's a story to tell or not.

SCHWEITZER: Well there have been novels in which the world ends, everything from James Morrow's This Is the Way the World Ends, all the way back to Mary Shelley's The Last Man in 1826. The protagonist has to protag, certainly, but he doesn't have to triumph. So if SF seems to be inherently optimistic, is that really the nature of the form or something that is market-driven?

BACIGALUPI: It's interesting that you mention the question of markets, because I do think that an author who simply wanted to have a career writing about the world ending again, and again, and again . . . probably wouldn't have a very long career. I remember speaking with an agent years ago, and one of the comments he made about the difference between being a short story writer versus a novelist was that a novelist ideally wants a reader to want to pick up another book by the author -- rather than give up on that novelist and go find other others to read. There's potentially a career limit to how many times you can devastate readers with protagonist-failure and world-ending before you no longer have anything except the most self-flagellating or death-fetishizing readership.

Or maybe that's my bias.

As far as separating SF's literary nature from its market-driven nature . . . intellectually, sure, we can separate the two and observe that indeed, any kind of novel can be written. But the reality is that we only recognize and talk about those novels that are published and widely read, and it turns out that those stories largely adhere to structural conventions like having living people in them, and having at least a handful of the characters we care about survive. So, even though SF, just like every other genre of literature, can affect any experiment it likes . . . if no one wants to read it, does it really matter?

SCHWEITZER: So, is SF supposed to predict possible futures or prevent them? What about its didactic or propagandistic nature?

BACIGALUPI: When I'm feeling idealistic, I hope that SF can in some way influence where we're headed. For me, that informs a lot of the reasons that I write, and helps me choose my themes and topics. I think that we're headed for interesting times, so it seems worthwhile to write about those, and try to get a grip on them in some way.

As far as didacticism or propaganda . . . is it necessarily bad for a writer to have an opinion, and even to reveal that opinion on the page?

SCHWEITZER: I see what you mean. I met a "retired" writer once who explained that his last couple novels were so gloomy he didn't see the point in adding to the general depression of the world, so he did not publish them. But this does get back to the question of didacticism. The Windup Girl for instance certainly takes place in an undesirable future, but is the point of the book more to warn people about how the future might turn out, or to tell a story in which people adapt to that future?

BACIGALUPI: I think I leave that to the reader to decide. There's not much point in my stating my own opinion about what the reader should take away from the story. The story does what it does.

SCHWEITZER: Sure an author has an opinion and it inevitably ends up on the page, but we all know horrible examples of how the author's preachiness or just self-indulgence ruined his fiction. The most obvious examples are the later Wells and the later Heinlein. So how do you strike the right balance?

BACIGALUPI: I think that the key probably lies in how deeply rendered the characters and their world is. I think one of the ways you can avoid didacticism in science fiction is to simply make the world define your argument -- then the characters can proceed with almost any plot they like, while the world looms in the background, defining their lives. The characters, then, don't need to make moral points of the story. They don't need to preach. They don't need to learn a lesson. They don't need to be on the "right" side or the "wrong" side. I think where authors often get into trouble is where protagonists represent the author's "good" values and the antagonists represent the "bad" values. They become obvious marionettes. Interestingly, I've been flirting with some of those exact problems in The Doubt Factory. Sometimes, you just want to wear your values on your sleeve and stop trying to be tricksy about your thinking. Sometimes a good romp over obvious bad guys is just good entertaining fun, and I think if you've got a sympathetic reader, they'll still enjoy the ride.

I think the other place where an author can fail, though, is when you stop thinking about your reader at all. And I think that's very much what happened with later Heinlein. I don't think he was struggling to tell stories for others anymore, not really. I think he was at a point in his life where he'd realized that he didn't need to try very hard. Sometimes, I think that writing is a process of dreaming deeply inside a world. If you aren't immersing yourself in that dream, risking, and testing, you don't get a good story. But the problem is that the dreaming process is hard work. It's more than just setting up the mechanics of a story, or illustrating a concept, there's something emotionally risky about being down deep inside your fiction, and I think when we authors find ways to remove ourselves from that deep dream state, that's when stories start to ring false.

SCHWEITZER: Or is there an opposite to didacticism? Have you had instances where you find that, logically, for story purposes, your characters begin to hold opinions or values that you don't share?

BACIGALUPI: Again, I think if you let the world make your argument, then the characters can simply exist and do whatever they're inclined to do.

SCHWEITZER: So, what are you working on now?

BACIGALUPI: The Doubt Factory has just come out. Next Spring, The Water Knife will launch, it's going to focus on a climate change-driven water war between Phoenix and Las Vegas. After that, I'm working on the third book in the Ship Breaker series. I've also got a few short story projects in the works, including a follow-up fantasy novella to "The Alchemist" in the same shared world that I did a few years ago with Tobias Buckell. After that, I'm not entirely sure. I'm sure something will present itself.

SCHWEITZER: Thanks, Paolo.

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