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Interview: Paolo Bacigalupi by Alana Hurley & Andrew Brooks
Review by Alana Hurley
SFRevu *Interview  ISBN/ITEM#: INTPaoloBacigal
Date: July 2008

Links: Paolo Bacigalupi's Website / Review: Pump Six and Other Stories / Review of Short Story / Excerpt from Pump Six (story) /

After reading his short story "Pump Six", Alana Hurley wanted to ask Paolo Bacigalupi a few questions. Our review of Pump Six and Other Stories, Andrew Brooks, also had a few questions of his own for the author. Luckily for us, Paolo was more than happy to take the time to answer our queries.

SFRevu (Alana): In "Pump Six," a reproductive disorder (humans producing trogs instead of humans) is the sign that things have started to go really, really wrong. It reminded me of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and P.D. James's Children of Men. Alvarez and Meg are also trying, without success, to have a baby. I'm interested in your motivations behind choosing this particular environmental calamity. Why reproduction?

Paolo Bacigalupi: Pregnant women and children are the most vulnerable populations to endocrine disruptors, so its pretty much a natural matchup. Also, when I first started writing "Pump Six" my son had just been born, so reproduction was on my mind.

SFRevu: Speaking of reproduction...the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement cites environmental concerns as the reason for their movement. What do you think about their particular reaction to the evolutionary crises we are facing?

Paolo: I love it. It means more elbow room for me and mine. Seriously though, it's hard to take a religion of self-annihilation very seriously. Whatever environmental solutions we craft are probably going to have to be perceived as a win-win for a majority of self-interested people. Most of our landmark environmental legislation (Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Wilderness Act) was crafted at a time when people were seeing real consequences from environmental degradation. Our biggest problem now is that many of the environmental threats we face are diffuse -- that and we have well-organized corporate interests and PR firms to muddy the policy waters.

SFRevu: How did you get interested in science fiction? Was there an "aha!" author or book for you?

Paolo: It was Citizen of the Galaxy. It got me reading, and got me excited about stories. Thorby's rise from slavery to power, and his coming of age really got me.

SFRevu: What disturbed me so much while reading "Pump Six" was how the story made me feel that it was skating on the not-fiction edge of science fiction. How do you see our global situation developing in light of the ongoing food-and-fuel crises?

Paolo: We've still got choices. We can either work together with one another, share, reduce consumption, and seriously plan for the long term, or we can continue with our short-term profit-oriented model. Nothing's set in stone, but it gets harder and harder to believe in positive outcomes the longer I watch our politicians pander to us and promote everything from offshore drilling to gas-tax holidays. We're still in a mode where we don't want to deal with why gas is expensive, we just want it to be cheap again-- which says a lot about us... and about where we're likely heading. I'm certain that we'll get the future we deserve.

SFRevu: Do you hope your work will force its readers to look at the nastier aspects of human consumption?

Paolo: It depends on the story. But overall, with stories like "Small Offerings" or "Pump Six" or "The Calorie Man" I hope that people will feel uncomfortable for a moment with their own world. I'd like people to look around at the things we take for granted, and consider if they are things that they really want. With grossly extrapolated futures like mine, I think it provides an opportunity to look around and think about where we're heading and ask what kind of world we're building for ourselves.

SFRevu: In your Locus Online interview, you spoke about your son having to "face the tiger" of what his predecessors have done to our planet. What is the thing that most concerns you, as a parent, about his future?

Paolo: The one thing? I'm so paranoid, it's never just one thing. It varies by the day. I worry about his access to cheap food and clean abundant water. I worry about the affects of endocrine disruptors on him and his playmates -- we have 300,000 man-made chemicals in our toys, in our food containers, in our houses, in our paints, in our food supply, and of those, around 3,000 have been tested for side effects on human health. One percent have been tested. Nifty, huh?

The current poster-child for this is Bisphenyl-A, an estrogen mimic found in polycarbonate platics -- i.e. your baby's sippy cup. Canada has now banned it, and Nalgene is saying they're going to phase out its use, but it was a huge fight just to get one estrogen mimic partly taken care of. Which leaves how many more? In terms of chemical exposure, we're running on the assumption that if we don't look, it won't hurt us. Which seems fine until you look at increasing rates of autism, or early onset puberty, or ADHD. Something's going wrong with an awful lot of our kids, and we can't really put a finger on all the causes. Hormones in milk? Or hormone mimics in your drinking water? Who knows? But that's a huge burden for a society to have to shoulder, if our kids aren't growing up healthy.

So that's one bit of paranoia, but I've got others. I worry that we don't really understand how hard climate change might turn out to be, and that we don't understand all its follow-on effects. Rising sea levels, sure, but what about ecosystems unravelling? What happens if pollinators and the flower they depend on fall out of sync? What does that look like? I don't know, and not knowing, scares me. I wonder if the loss of cheap oil/transportation will mean that my son will be cut off from his Indian heritage if the world suddenly becomes large again.

I worry about our democratic political system in the face of complex challenges. If we have a largely ill-educated and sound-bite oriented culture, how will we face nuanced problems? We can barely get a handle on climate change, but there's plenty of other stuff out there. We've got an Environmental Protection Agency that's been gutted, so even though we have environmental laws on the books, it's difficult to enforce even egregious infractions. Ditto USDA.

Everywhere we look our culture and business systems have become more complex, but at the same time, our governmental and regulatory structures have been gutted. We've got the Bush Administration to thank for this cynical destruction of our public protections, but ultimately our weak and compliant democratic culture was the thing that allowed Bush to get away with it. Even with Bush gone, we still need to look in the mirror and recognize that he's just a symptom of a much larger problem in our society.

I worry about the loss of well-funded journalism organizations. Sure, we've got a lot of blogs, but they aren't a replacement for the kinds of boots on the ground research that good newspapers used to provide. I worry about the loss of investigative journalists, and I worry about the loss of readers interested in reading long, complex in-depth articles. Sound-bite and snark are a lot of fun, but we need a rich layer of original reporting to maintain a democratic society, and while I see newspapers and news magazines fading, I don't see many indications that anything else is taking their place. So I worry that we're losing the people and resources dedicated to telling us what we need to know about the world... at the same time as the world's problems are becoming more complex... at the same time as we ourselves seem less inclined or equipped to engage with the problems presented... at the same time as corporate interests and lobbyists seem more dedicated than ever to owning and influencing our government structures for their own profit.

The thing that scares me most about global warming isn't that it's an environmental disaster, it's that it's an indicator of just how broken our civil systems are. While the rest of the world figured it out, we sat on our butts, paralyzed, not just by an inept President, but by failures at almost every level of our nation to get a grip on reality. So, mostly, I worry that my son is going to inherit all the problems we've already created, along with a nation that seems absurdly ill-equipped to solve them.

Editor's Note: Andrew Brooks reviewed the "Pump Six collection, and added some questions of his own:

SFRevu (Andrew): Which 'future' in the collection does he think the most plausible for us?

Paolo: None of them, really. Aspects, sure. You're going to see more GM foods on the market. You're going to see water scarcity in the southwest. But how we deal with them, that's another question. My futures are often cynical, worst-case scenarios, with the volume turned up to eleven. They're the ones where people fail to reach out to one another, refuse to sacrifice, focus solely on short-term profit to the expense of everything else. Those are trendlines that have accelerated in the last decade, I think, but we don't have to be that way. I don't think of my writing as predictive in any sense of the word. I hope that my stories are illuminating though, that they cast light on places of concern, and toss out question marks about how far down various roads we really want to go. These are caricatures of the future, for the purpose of illuminating our present.

SFRevu: It seems that research is involved as much with short fiction as long. How much research do you put into each story when coming up with these ideas -- such as those in the Pump Six stories?

Paolo: When I'm coming up with stories, I don't normally do any research. I read a variety of things anyway, and so I've always got stuff knocking around in my head. It's all pre-researched in that sense. After I've got an idea nailed down and a direction I want to take, then I have to either go check out books or google for specific information to fill in holes where I'm fuzzy. A lot of my research is more of the fact-checking variety, trying to make sure that some idea that I remembered is actually the way I remembered it and then nailing it down for the story so that I won't be too embarrassed later when it comes out in print.

SFRevu: Are you involved with any conservation groups?

Paolo: The only one I'm supporting right now is our local river group, North Fork River Improvement Association. They do water quality testing on the river, try to improve habitat, and fix things like irrigation intakes so more water stays in the river for fish.

SFRevu: Have you every considered writing a novel? Got one on the burner?

Paolo: I'm working on two novels, right now. They should both be finished by the end of summer. One is set in the same universe as "Yellow Card Man," and it's turned out to be quite complex for me. The other is a bit of a secret. It's something that I've been wanting to do for a while, and I finally found the right way to do it.

SFRevu: Thank you for your time

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