Paolo Bacigalupi’s first novel for young adults, Ship Breaker, won the 2011 Michael L. Printz Award and placed him firmly on the radar of the YA world – just a year after his debut adult novel, The Windup Girl, swept the major science-fiction honors, including the Hugo and Nebula Awards. He returns to the post-cataclysmic realm of Ship Breaker with the release of The Drowned Cities, which moves the action from a futuristic Gulf Coast devastated by climate change to war-torn Washington, D.C. The author spoke with PW from the relative safety of his Colorado home about the differences between writing for adults and for teens, the distinction he draws between dystopias and science fiction, and why Conan the Barbarian was more than just another muscle-bound warrior.
There’s been so much discussion recently on the popularity of dystopias among teenagers. What’s your take on why teens find these novels so appealing?
My gut thought is that they’re enjoying those stories specifically because dystopian worlds provide a more adventurous, more thrilling, more intense world than our own. When we talk about dystopias, especially in young adult fiction, a lot of them are essentially science fictional futures. They aren’t necessarily tied to the traditional concept of dystopia. And so in that space, my impression is that kids love reading about weird, wild, adventurous places, and dystopia fits that bill.
You make the distinction between dystopia and science fiction, and your books have been described as science fiction, speculative fiction, bio-punk. How do you feel about genre labels? Are there any you feel comfortable applying to your own books?
I don’t put a very clear label on my work. If anything, I write science fiction – looking at a moment now, in the present, and then extrapolating outward to think about what the future might look like if this particular trend goes on, or if this particular trend is the most dominant. That’s a science fictional tool. Sometimes when we label something dystopian fiction, I feel like we’re trying very hard not to use the words “science fiction,” because science fiction has those horrible connotations of rocket ships and bodacious babes [laughs]. It’s got that trashy, pop connotation that goes with it. Or else it’s so relentlessly geek culture that you automatically end up in the Star Trek/space opera sort of space. When I think about defining dystopian fiction, typically I’ve thought of that as being a perfected world that’s hell for the individual. You see it with novels like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, or 1984, or Brave New World. They strike me as being the classic dystopias: everything’s great! No, it’s actually awful. And with the stuff that I’m writing, nobody ever thinks that anything is great. They think it’s terrible. So in that sense it’s not really dystopian; it’s just another broken future.
It seems as though most people use “dystopia” to mean a world gone awry, not necessarily a perfected world.
There’s a moment when a word stops meaning one thing and starts meaning another thing because we use it in a different way, and I do feel like we are moving to that space where you say, oh, it’s a dystopian story. But what we’re really asking is, why do we like seeing really screwed-up worlds? That’s actually kind of a puzzle. One of the things that surprises me, whether I’m writing for adults or writing for young adults, is how much people seem to engage with stories that previously I’d been told were unsellable, that they were too dark, too depressing, just too awful to be considered to be viable. There’s a certain amount of anxiety about where we’re headed next, and there’s something cathartic about seeing these broken versions of where we might go.
Do you think that these stories appeal to young adults for the same reasons they do to adults?
I don’t know. As a kid, I always liked reading stories where I had a power-projection fantasy. I wanted to be inside of a story where I had power and influence, was going to rise to power, was going to somehow influence my society. And I think in a lot of those narratives of dystopias, you see kids becoming powerful and influential, and then changing the way that the system works. As far as a fantasy, when you’re stuck in high school or middle school and cocooned inside of rules and structure, it’s like, God, what could be better than that?
Your books tend to emphasize the “science” in “science fiction.” The Drowned Cities and Ship Breaker, for example, take place in a post-peak-oil world devastated by climate change. What sort of background do you have in science?
I was the online editor for an environmental newspaper called High Country News, and I spent a lot of time working with science journalists. Typically when you’re a science journalist or an environmental journalist, you can only report what’s there now. If you’re talking about global warming, you can talk about a certain species dying off, or about bleaching corals, but you can’t go very far down the road of, what does this look like for the future? And that’s where I get to pick up the ball and keep running with it. If corals are going extinct and they’re trying to figure out ways to preserve DNA from corals so that maybe they can be reintroduced in the future, that’s about as much as a journalist can report on. But I can write a story about a hundred years in the future, when they’ve got the last vial of coral DNA. Science journalists are out there picking at all the nooks and crannies of the world, and they’re noticing stuff that we in our daily lives would never be aware of. And what they’re finding is horrifying. I get to take their nightmares and translate that into my fiction.
The social issues you address in your YA fiction, too, reflect the real world – the use of child labor for salvaging in Ship Breaker mirrors circumstances in Bangladesh and other countries, and the child soldiers in The Drowned Cities have many real-life counterparts. Do you hope that your teen readers will make these connections?
You have so many different goals when you’re writing, and ultimately you’re trying to make sure that your characters seem cool enough to follow the story to the end. But then you have all these other values.If I’m thinking about the hypothetical suburban teen reader, there are themes that I want to highlight that I think are important to know about. And if I can pull those into my fiction and humanize those, then there’s this possibility that when they read a news story about ship breaking, for example, that there’s a connection. The fiction provides a framework to say, that’s not just an abstraction over there, but that’s actually horrifying, and maybe not even tolerable.
One of the toughest things about writing The Drowned Cities was trying to make it honest without turning it into a completely devastating book. You’d be reading some kid’s account of what happened to them, and it would just kill you. And then you’re thinking, how do I respect this in my novel when if I write this, that’s just the end of it, it can’t even be published. That’s where you run into the limits of fiction – we’re still expecting our fiction somehow to exist as entertainment as opposed to a genuine reflection of the world.
You’ve set your novels in fairly divergent locations – The Windup Girl takes place in Southeast Asia, Ship Breaker is set on the Gulf Coast, and then The Drowned Cities takes place in Washington, D.C. Do those areas have particular resonance for you?
When I’m writing, there’s a whole host of things that I want to have come together. I want the setting, I want the characters, and I want the plot all to be an intertwined set of gears. Your setting is not a random place. There’s a reason The Drowned Cities is set in D.C., because this story started with the idea of, what happens to a country when it can no longer engage in healthy or productive political dialogue, and what does it look like when the country tears itself apart? So you could be in Any City, U.S.A., but to move it to the heart of our political system makes the most sense. And the same thing with setting Ship Breaker on the Gulf Coast. When New Orleans was hammered by Hurricane Katrina, that there was this idea that we should rebuild it. And it struck me: what’s the longterm outcome here? In a hundred years – if we understand that global warming is going to be changing certain dynamics, if we understand that the sea levels are rising, if we understand that hurricanes are going to be more frequent, not less – how much sense does it make to say we’re going to rebuild New Orleans, when it’s clearly in a hideously vulnerable place? Physical location is illustrative for me, in terms of larger themes, always.
Your name begs the question: any plans to set a book in Italy?
I haven’t ever come up with a story that would make sense to set there, but I’d sure love to go. I’m actually fifth-generation Italian, so my great-great grandfather was the last real Italian. I ended up with his name. My father is Tadini Joseph Bacigalupi the third, and there was a lot of discussion about making me Tadini Joseph Bacigalupi the fourth. But my parents decided that that was just too awful to consider, and so they took Paolo from my great-great-grandfather, and then they made Tadini, my father’s name, my middle name, and then you end up with Paolo Tadini Bacigalupi – which is the most Italian part of me there is [laughs]. It’s quite a train wreck of a name.
And yet somehow you got your first novel published under that name, in September 2009. That was The Windup Girl for adults, and then Ship Breaker followed in May 2010. Which one did you write first?
I wrote them at the same time. The Windup Girl took me about three years to write. I was still learning some things that I hadn’t figured out in my previous novels that didn’t get published, and so I was sort of stuck. And on top of that, Windup Girl itself is a very, very dark story with very little human hope in it. The characters are fairly selfish and short-sighted and not particularly loyal to one another, so it made for a very intense and depressing story to write. Once I sent the draft off to my agent, all I wanted to do was cleanse my palate. I had been talking with my wife, who’s a teacher, about how kids in her school don’t read. And one of the things that had come up was how when I was a kid, I was always reading science fiction and fantasy. So I started rooting through my books and I found that the books that I’d grown up being in love with, the Robert Heinlein juveniles like Starman Jones and Citizen of the Galaxy, some of them are OK but a lot of them are really long in the tooth. You can read Have Spacesuit – Will Travel now, and it’s so quaint that you can barely stand it. I thought, wow, what are these kids going to read if we don’t have new, cool science fiction for them? So Ship Breaker was kind of my attempt to do that. And it was also an opportunity to have characters I could really love, who would trust each other and support each other instead of stabbing each other in the back. That’s really important for me in all of my young adult writing, that loyalty and trust and support and human care that’s not in my adult fiction very much.
Other than trying to make your characters more sympathetic, is there anything else that’s different in your approach to writing for younger people as opposed to the way you write for adults?
I think about pacing differently. I think more in terms of keeping the plot moving, keeping the conflicts coming, keeping the action in motion. In my adult writing, there’s a tendency for me to meander and wallow a little bit more, so I discipline myself to stay focused on, OK, what’s the next cool thing that’s going to happen? I also want to give kids a little bit more of that sense of agency and control. Certainly with Ship Breaker that was my intention, that Nailer could get to a better place than he had been. The Drowned Cities ended up a bit darker. That was not intended, but it ended up being honest. So if I were going to say the things that I focus on, I like my characters to actually care about each other and be loyal to each other. And I speed up the plot. But other than that, it’s the same broken world, same awful forces, and bad human decisions.
The character Tool, a genetically engineered half-man, half-beast, appears in both The Drowned Cities and Ship Breaker. What made you want to bring him back as a character?
One of the things I like about Tool is that he is one of those power-projection figures. I used to read Conan the Barbarian when I was a kid, Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, all of those Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Howard kinds of books. It’s really interesting to me how young adult literature focuses on teens as protagonists, because I was so addicted to reading about the empowered adults. And Tool embodies some of those things. There was a point when I actually considered writing a whole series about Tool traveling around and encountering different people, just because I like him so much. He’s so powerful, and he’s so weirdly wise about looking at human endeavor from a distance and analyzing it and critiquing it. That was something that Conan was always doing as well: you civilized garbage people! Only the purity of the barbarian is good! [laughs] Also, Tool as a character hadn’t come to rest at the end of Ship Breaker the way Nailer had.
Before The Drowned Cities I wrote an entire draft of a direct sequel to Ship Breaker, and ended up throwing it away. It was all about Nailer, and it was a terrible, terrible book. I was trying to force Nailer to have more adventures, and his essential arc had closed. With Tool, I felt like he hadn’t come to closure. There were a bunch of different things in my mind. One of them was that I just wanted to write more cool stuff about this battle monster. Part of it was that I really do feel like my essential kid loves seeing that, and so I feel like other kids will love seeing that, too. After I’d thrown away the Nailer book, where Tool had also reappeared, I started centering on these concepts of, what does it mean to be at war with one another, what does it mean to kill people, what does it mean to recruit people to become killers, build them into killers? And Tool suddenly became hugely meaningful because he had been designed to kill, because he was supposed to obey, because he was supposed to be a war machine, all those different things. I realized he needed to be in this story.
Do you plan to set more books in the Ship Breaker / Drowned Cities universe?
I want to write a book focused around Seascape Boston. There’s the New Orleans that failed to adapt, the Drowned Cities that tears itself apart. And then there’s Seascape, and Seascape Boston is a place where people looked ahead and adapted themselves to what was coming. I want to play around with what it means to be a society that’s forward-looking enough to adapt to what’s coming, to be reality-based enough to acknowledge that the world is changing – but also, if you’ve managed to build a life raft for yourself, but you haven’t built a life raft for everyone else around you, how does that work? That’s intriguing and powerful for me, so that’s the next part of that universe.
Is there a place for earlier characters in this book?
Maybe [laughs]. I’m considering it. If I can move Nailer far enough forward in his development, I would like to have Nailer and Pima and Nita back on the stage. I can start seeing ways that they might have another story arc. And I want Tool back in. I like the place where I left him, where he was just on the verge of doing something that humanity really wouldn’t like. This military genius monster thing is not only independent and loose, but is also building an army now. I see some real potential for mayhem. I’m really looking forward to it.
Your fans likely are, too, because YA books tend to inspire that kind of passion in their readers, much the ways adult sci-fi does. Do you see any difference between the two communities, having started out in the adult community, and then delving into YA?
I think the science fiction community has a sense specifically of its own community – not only that we geek out about the books and stuff like that, but we come together at conventions year after year to focus again on this stuff that we obsess about. I actually came to the science fiction convention circuit sort of late. I didn’t even really know about it until I was pretty far into trying to write, and it was really interesting to walk into a hotel where I knew nobody, and then by the end of the day to have met dozens of people who all were similarly obsessed with the kinds of things that I was. It’s like, wow, I’ve found my tribe! How did I miss it for so long? And it sounds crazy but I did feel like I’d found this strange home there in that community of people who keep coming together like that. And I haven’t experienced that in YA in quite the same way. People are definitely super-engaged with the books and there’s that passion about it, but it doesn’t feel like it’s quite the whole identity of the readers, whereas in science fiction it’s almost the whole identity. Not only do I read this stuff, but this is who I am. That seems slightly different. But otherwise I think you’re dead on in terms of that sense of a passion about this genre and an excitement to be knowledgeable inside of it and be reading inside of it and being immersed in it. I don’t really feel like I see that in many other literature genres.
Have you made any discoveries since you’ve joined the YA world?
The one that really stood out was M.T. Anderson. I remember being about halfway into Feed and thinking, I understand exactly how he’s structuring this, and this is amazing. He’s doing this in an honest way. And that was revelatory to me because in some ways my conception of young adult fiction had been formed by my Heinleinian experiences – it’s an adventure! To have M.T. Anderson say, I’m going to reflect your world back at you in a way that you’ve never looked at it, and you’re going to be uncomfortable in your own skin in ways that you hadn’t realized that you could be – that was just phenomenal.
What’s next for you in terms of your writing?
Of all things, my next book is going to be a middle-grade novel, all zombies and baseball. My wife teaches a combined class of fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, and she’s my finger on the pulse of what’s happening in kid land. One of her students said, I want to read about zombies! So I was like, OK, I’ll write a zombie book. We’re in line editing now, so assuming I’m on time, it’ll come out in the spring of 2013. Right now it’s tentatively titled Zombie Baseball Beatdown.
Do you feel fairly certain that you’ll revisit the world of the Drowned Cities?
Yeah, I’ll be returning to the Drowned Cities universe, and I’m doing a modern-day political thriller, also for young adults. My next adult book will be The Water Knife, focused on a water war between Phoenix and Las Vegas. Depending on how quickly I work, it might come out next year. No guarantees, though. My biggest problem right now is that I have too many books that I want to be writing and not enough time to be jamming them out. The Drowned Cities took me two years to write, and while that was happening I was still getting ideas for other books, and I just kept thinking, if I could just figure out how to finish this book, I’ll be OK. I’ve got all these ideas, I’ve got to write other things. I’m ready.
The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi. Little, Brown, $17.99 May ISBN 978-0-316-05624-3