The Big Idea: Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi has made a name from himself — and garnered a shelf full of awards including the Hugo, Nebula and Printz — by taking a hard and not always comfortable look at the logical progression of today’s conditions into the future of our planet. In The Drowned Cities, the follow-on to his award-winning YA novel Ship Breaker, Bacigalupi looks again at the world we are creating today with our words and actions, and what it means for what we leave to those who come after us.

PAOLO BACIGALUPI:

When I started writing The Drowned Cities, I hadn’t planned to write about politics. Typically I write about environmental issues such as global warming or energy scarcity or GM foods, but as I was working on the book, our increasingly divided political dialogue and government paralysis intruded.

These says, I can’t help noticing how much time we spend busting unions in Wisconsin or warring over contraception in universities, or checking people’s citizenship papers at traffic stops, while our geopolitical situation and future prospects change for the worse. As I’ve watched this dysfunction deepen, I’ve started to consider other aspects of where we might be headed.

As much as we invoke Rome and its fallen empire as a metaphor for our present American circumstance, I’m more interested in Greece, and the failures of prototype democracy. I can’t help but notice how easily demagogues and rhetoric sway our citizens these days, and how we turn on any leader foolish enough as to tell us that the shadows on the wall are false–whether that’s the dream of endless American prosperity, or the mirage of American exceptionalism, or the fairy tale that taxes will never be raised at the same time as our military will never be trimmed.

Democracy is fragile. It takes people working together in good faith to make it function. And yet, these days we celebrate people who profit from undermining it. We bathe ourselves in the rhetorical flourishes of Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity (and no, Keith Olbermann doesn’t float my boat much either), and it seems like you’re either a patriot or a traitor to your country. Environmentalist just want to kill jobs. Democrats are out to make America weak. The left is stupid, and the right is crazy. The Christians are trying to create a theocracy, and the socialists are hiding under every rock, just waiting to take over the government.

Division. Distrust. Contempt. Hatred.

Ironically, the demagogues who work so hard to deepen our divisions are getting rich at the same time. They hack away at their fellow citizens, and encouraging others to do the same. They devalue half our population’s humanity for the entertainment of the other half–and they make massive amounts of money. Rush Limbaugh alone makes $38 million a year from poisoning our political dialogue.

Almost all of my writing asks the simple question: If this goes on, what does the world look like? For The Drowned Cities, I asked: If everyone we disagree with is a traitor, where does that take us? If we can’t figure out how to cooperate, and if we always demonize one another, what sort of world do we hand off to our children in terms of politics and prosperity? The Drowned Cities is about the world after Rush Limbaugh and the rest of our talking heads have boarded their private jets and left the wreckage of the country behind. It about a world where we didn’t solve the big problems because we were focused on the small schisms.

In The Drowned Cities, warlord factions fight over territory, scrap, religion, and recruits. Two young children, Mahlia and Mouse, have been orphaned by the civil war and fled to the jungle outskirts. They’ve both lost their families and Mahlia has lost a hand to the war’s brutalities. Now, in the village of Banyan Town, they’ve found shelter, thanks to the protective influence of a humanitarian doctor. But even this fragile safety doesn’t last. War is coming Banyan Town. Soldier boys are in the jungles, sweeping the swamps with hunting dogs, searching for something that only Mahlia knows about. Something that the soldier boys will do anything to find, and something that Mahlia can never let them have, no matter what it costs herself, the doctor, or the town.

—-

The Drowned Cities: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Free preview of the novel on Kindle or Nook (US Only). Follow the author on Twitter.

32 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Paolo Bacigalupi

  1. I’m going to pop in here quickly and note that although Paolo has invoked current politics and uses more examples from the US right than the left, I would really rather prefer it if the thread did not immediately devolve into a cheering contest between the left and right political camps, a shopping list of which side is worse, or is otherwise populated by pointless political posturing (and by “prefer” I mean “I have the Mallet handy and will apply it when I deem it necessary”).

    Rather, should you address politics in your comments, I encourage you to think on what I believe is the salient question Paolo asks: “If everyone we disagree with is a traitor, where does that take us? If we can’t figure out how to cooperate, and if we always demonize one another, what sort of world do we hand off to our children in terms of politics and prosperity?”

    I thank you in advance for your willingness to engage fruitfully rather than reflexively.

  2. One of the better (if unintentional) op-ed pieces I’ve read. Will check out the book for certain.

  3. I first stumbled across Paolo with his short story collection in Pump 6 (which I found in the back stacks of Uncle Hugo’s in Minneapolis, see you in June, Scalzi). I loved it, it was like reading William Gibson Sprawl era stuff, but with a dystopian environmental bend. Tough and brutal and scary and insightful and cool. Loved it. I’d heard of Wind-up Girl, of course, too, but I hadn’t picked it up yet (but I will, it’s on the list) and I’m excited because Shipbreaker has now made it to the on-deck spot on top of my massive pile of to-be-read books. And now reading about The Drowned Cities… I’m putting it on my list too. It just makes me happy to find an another author that I really enjoy to read, especially knowing that I have several books out there waiting for me to dive into. Can’t wait.

  4. I guess I thought Paolo was writing about politics the entire time, seeing as climate change and resource scarcity have managed to become inextricably linked to politics.

  5. Gott chime in again and say Paolo’s one of those writers who, whenever I read their work, I curse them and the stars that shine over their heads. For they must be different stars, ones that shine brighter and load him with a certain radiation that comes out in his work and makes me slobber over every word and want to be a better writer. SHIPNBREAKER pissed me off like that but made me work harder and I’m sure DROWNED CITIES will do the same.

  6. I have to second Jon’s comment above about Pump 6: A terrific anthology that is well worth buying.

  7. He makes a good point–one plenty of political commentators on both right and left have also noted, but with little influence on the increasingly polarized climate in Washington and amongst the cheering squads elsewhere. The thing is, when the Founding Fathers created our system of government, they hoped we’d reject political parties and instead elect free-thinking representatives who legislated by actually thinking through the issues at hand, not just parroting a party line. Didn’t last long, but at least a sense that you can compromise and be collegial survived and flourished (though actually things were worse in the mid-19th century). And the stupidest part is, neither party actually represents a coherent ideology, but rather different collections of often contradictory and bizarrely matched interests.

    I just got a copy of The Drowned Cities; this article makes me even more excited to read it.

  8. I read the Windup Girl recently. A friend asked me what I thought of it and I had a hard time answering. This is an author who writes beautiful prose, the kind that when you read it you are transported to the spot. And yet it was one of the hardest books I have read. It was dark in a way that feels a bit too real, I suppose. I could look at the landscape of the book and see how our world really could play out into that sort of a place. I would seriously wince as I read it and yet I really couldn’t put it down; even when sometimes I really needed to put it down and go walk among some daisies or play with puppies or something. Reading his description here, I felt that wince again. In a good way.

  9. JReynolds: The first thing you should do when you see a link from the Daily Mail is check if you can find another report of the same story from a different and/or more reputable source. It’s well known, in the UK at least, as a “News Outlet which cherry picks stories to fit a preconceived narrative”.

  10. If everyone we disagree with is a traitor, where does that take us? If we can’t figure out how to cooperate, and if we always demonize one another, what sort of world do we hand off to our children in terms of politics and prosperity?

    Democracy is war encoded so as to be as minimally destructive as possible. We count heads, see who’s likely to win, and accept it. But we see the end: without strong propaganda, factions always emerge. It took the original USG about 2 years. That, in spite of their abhorrence of faction, because they knew what effect party politics had had in ancient Greece. And without a homogeneous voting population (i.e., white male Protestant property owners), factions become estranged.

    So we hand off a world lacking multiparty democracy. But this does not necessarily mean war; that is only one possibility. (Obviously it is quite available — just look at modern Africa.) Other possibilities are one-party democracy of various sorts, or just military rule. Alternatively, we can fragment down into very homogeneous states and run democracy in them. Or we can return to a more limited franchise in a diverse state.

  11. We bathe ourselves in the rhetorical flourishes of Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity (and no, Keith Olbermann doesn’t float my boat much either), and it seems like you’re either a patriot or a traitor to your country.

    Uncritical approval is insidious. If you never criticize the flaws in something, you do it a grievous disservice. A parent who never admonishes ill prepares their children for life. A teacher who only gives praise is a poor mentor. A citizen who finds no fault in the body politic is no patriot, but an unprincipled sycophant.

    A true patriot loves the republic, the people for which it stands, not a government or political party. Beware of idolaters who worship the symbols and pomp of liberty, yet have no stomach for its exercise, who kowtow to the words of freedom, yet would turn on those who live free, who would denigrate what their forebears achieved in spite of themselves and history because they cannot stand to look upon flawed legends and must replace humans with mythical gods.

    I haven’t set many stories in the next couple of centuries. When I do though, they tend to be the darkest, not because their problems are worse than those of the more distant future, but because they are living through the crucible of our post-industrial technological adolescence when we either evolve or backslide into the mud. I suppose the static in the air can make our times seem more exceptional than they are, but we really are in the midst of a sea change both literally and figuratively.

    But to answer your question:

    If everyone we disagree with is a traitor, where does that take us? If we can’t figure out how to cooperate, and if we always demonize one another, what sort of world do we hand off to our children in terms of politics and prosperity?

    We hand them the pieces of an heirloom crafted by generations before us and broken into pieces by our petty lassitude, robbing them of the progressive can-do cooperative spirit that made American not exceptional, but highly unusual, with the only consolation that those ideals we embodied did not begin with us and will not die with the failure of our great experiment. The principles that made America a place of human synergy are part of the larger human condition and, although we have not always upheld them in concord, they will remain a part of humankind for so long as we endure as a species. Ideas cannot be drowned.

    @ Dapeck

    I guess I thought Paolo was writing about politics the entire time, seeing as climate change and resource scarcity have managed to become inextricably linked to politics.

    Which is a big part of the problem. When science and technology become political footballs, it bodes poorly for the gains of the Enlightenment.

    @ changterhune

    SHIPNBREAKER pissed me off like that but made me work harder and I’m sure DROWNED CITIES will do the same.

    I write fiction purely for my own enjoyment, so this may not be relevant to those who want others to read their art. But it seems to me that if you want to spin splendid tales, the most effective route is to simply let your imagination have free reign, as opposed to competing with other artists. I also compose music. I will never be a Mahler or Copland or Vangelis and I don’t try to be. I just write the music that comes out of me. I write prose because I have stories that want to unpack onto the page – otherwise why bother?

    @ The G

    Didn’t last long, but at least a sense that you can compromise and be collegial survived and flourished (though actually things were worse in the mid-19th century). And the stupidest part is, neither party actually represents a coherent ideology, but rather different collections of often contradictory and bizarrely matched interests.

    At least the Civil War was fought over a genuine polarization, not a manufactured one. Yes it was an even worse problem, but the South tried to break away because their economy was actually based on slave labor, not because cynical asshats commanded vast radio and TV audiences.

    @ Leonard

    So we hand off a world lacking multiparty democracy. But this does not necessarily mean war; that is only one possibility. (Obviously it is quite available — just look at modern Africa.) Other possibilities are one-party democracy of various sorts, or just military rule. Alternatively, we can fragment down into very homogeneous states and run democracy in them. Or we can return to a more limited franchise in a diverse state.

    All possible. But the trouble with forecasting the future is that it’s never quite what you saw coming, no matter what you predicted.

  12. @odaiwai: noted with thanks– I did some checking and it seems that the Daily Mail might have been exaggerating the change of methane emissions.

  13. Paolo is always doing the good work.

    <>

    I don’t think that this is ironic or even unintentional, and I say that not intending to demonize said demagogues. I think they operate under an ideology that is just as rigid as the extremists’ they demonize (on both sides) that says (deep down) that if you can take something from someone else, it is your right to do so, and if you don’t, your competitor will, so it’s okay (they like the word “amoral” as if responsibility for one’s actions can be so cleanly exited — Wall Street is “amoral”). Some even use environmental metaphors for this. Capitalism, insofar as you can call what we have truly capitalism, has many advantages, but this is its primary weakness, a pressure to focus on the next moment rather than the long term. I think it’s a cultural change that is needed from within the circle of “captains of industry” to teach the long game in addition to the next move. We see glimmers of that happening from time to time, and I have great respect for work like Paolo’s and Cory Doctorow’s that take on those issues in fiction.

  14. Other possibilities are one-party democracy of various sorts, or just military rule.

    One-party democracy? Suppose that one of the major political parties in the US suddenly announced that it wouldn’t be nominating any candidates at any level of government. So there might be a brief window, during which the remaining party would see victory for a large number of candidates and might be able to pass laws concerning whatever common goals the members of that party might possess. How long would it be before there were at least two parties again, perhaps divided along a different axis than previously. If one of the two was never able to win an election, it would probably start to adopt positions from the other one to steal voters until it more or less attained election victory parity.

  15. @Gulliver:

    Yeah, I wasn’t trying to say the Civil War was manufactured or that it was horrible that it actually got so bad that war happened (it was a horrible war, but necessary, because compromise was just allowing slavery to keep existing). I was just making a historical footnote that, technically, right now isn’t the absolute worst moment of party polarization in US history.

    You’re right, though: I wasn’t clear about that and your caveat about that conflict being fought over real and pressing issues vs. the one today being fought over symbols, misunderstood and misapplied labels (Obama a socialist? Really? I’m still laughing over that one) and a “go team go” mentality that trumps actual concern over the fate of the country and/or critical analysis of the issues and decision-making based on said analysis.

  16. Mike: single party democracy comes in several forms. A second party may resurge, if it is allowed; consider as an example the Republican party in 1936. But the other option is seen widely, where only one party is legal, or else one party is so dominant that it is, in effect, the only party. (Very sensible, from the POV of squelching the exact sort of public divisiveness that Paolo is concerned about.)

    Of course, neither US party is just going to disband because public discourse is too divisive. But even if one did, assuming competition was allowed, when a new party arose essentially the same left/right divide would quickly return. At the highest level of abstraction, there are only two self-organizing politics in democracy: 1) find inequality and stamp it out; 2) resist (1).

  17. @Leonard

    Yes you can have a scenario where only one party is legal, but I don’t think I’d describe that as democracy. If a deliberative body is actually functioning as a deliberative body rather than just blessing the decrees of the group actually running the country, then factions within that body are virtually guaranteed to emerge eventually. If one party is so dominant as to be the only party, then factional disputes within that dominant party will be the dispute that matters. I’ve lived in places where the ‘real’ election was the primary, because the party victorious in the general was a foregone conclusion.

    We generally define parties by their differences. If everyone agrees on the whether we should find inequality and stamp it out or not, we will find something else to argue or we will argue about the best definition of equality, we will almost certainly argue about something. Nearly everyone in the US is a republican in the sense that no one is advocating for a monarchy. Though I did recently see a article asserting that the dividing line between parties moves resolutely leftward. Since some countries have three or four parties, surely there are more axes of dispute than that one.

  18. Post Apocalyptic Science Fiction. Which is and has been very overdone. I don’t see any new ideas or takes in the book description so I’ll pass.

  19. Hmmm, I think I’ll keep an eye out for this one in the store. I picked up The Windup Girl a while back because the concept fascinated me – and it helped that it wasn’t set in a “USA gone lawless” post-apocalyptic world. Kind of tired of those, so Bangkok with a functioning government post-apocalypse was a draw in and of itself. And a genehack crop disease apocalypse too!

  20. QUERY: I went to Amazon and noted that I can buy the book in hard copy, which I am trying to avoid, OR I can get the FIRST ELEVEN chapters free for my Kindle. However, the full book doesn’t seem to be available electronically, even if I am willing to pay for it. What gives? (I went to some alternative sources like Baen to see if it was available there but couldn’t find it)

  21. I just want to thank you, John, for continually presenting me with authors and books I’ve never heard of yet that sound damned fascinating. I’m going to check this author out.

  22. I would like to just take a moment to give a quick shout-out to Paolo’s awesomeness. First, the books are hard and challenging while page-turners, too. And he’s doing good work encouraging readers as well. While he was in town for his book tour readings at the Tattered Cover and the Boulder Bookstore (have I mentioned these earlier this week? hmmm ), he also came out and did a reading for a local school, Westgate Community School . Big ups to Paolo for making the effort.

  23. Just wanted to say thank you for this thought-provoking post. Will be printing it out to pass around.

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