The Big Idea: Paolo Bacigalupi
So, Paolo Bacigalupi is having kind of a good month. Just this last weekend, his novel The Windup Girl was awarded the Nebula Award for Best Novel, the Nebula Award being one of the two highest awards in the science fiction and fantasy field (the other one is the Hugo, and The Windup Girl is nominated for that as well). And this month also marked the release of Bacigalupi’s first YA novel, Ship Breaker, which garnered a starred review in Publishers Weekly (“a stellar YA debut”), and is otherwise getting the sort of critical love that makes an author woozy (disclosure: I read an early version of the novel and gave it a blurb).
The reason for the acclaim for Ship Breaker is not only the writing but also the setting, which thanks to recent events in the Gulf of Mexico is more evocative and relevant than ever, and perhaps more than many of us would like to think about. Paolo explains below.
Whenever I think about the environment (Be Green; Love Mother Earth; Blah Blah Blah), I like to think of a family going out to a nice restaurant. Mom and Dad place their orders–but for some reason, the kids don’t get anything. Instead, the kids wait and watch while their parents gobble down dinner.
Their parents eat the arugula salad, the rosemary-infused bread, the sun-dried tomato farfalle, the veal piccata, and generally have a pretty great time. Maybe Mom’s wearing pearls, because, you know, it’s a nice restaurant. Dad is definitely wearing a tie–he’s classy that way. Mom and Dad go through a couple bottles of wine, linger over the tiramisu, and then, when they’re stuffed to the gills, they shove their picked-over and scraped-over plates down the table to their children, with the last bits of pasta and the runny lines of sauce, and some chewed-up bits of meat, and say, “Here kids, eat up!”
So the kids get the scraps, while their parents get the meal.
And then, to top it all off, Mom and Dad get up from the table and walk out the door, leaving the kids to deal with the pissed-off waiter who just showed up saying that the credit card has been declined. So the kids end up washing dishes in the back for the next couple hundred years to pay off the bill.
That’s Environment 101. The first person at the table gets the cheap energy, the clean water, the clean air, the rain forests, the coral reefs, and the open space, and has all the fun. The last person gets stuck with the cleanup and the bill. The last person is always going to be a kid. It’s not personal. It’s just the way things work out.
So when I started working on my young adult novel Ship Breaker, I knew I wanted to write a novel for kids that would help them viscerally experience the sort of scraps that we adults are leaving on the table for them to chow down on. Oil has run out, global warming and massive hurricanes have ravaged the Gulf coast, and poverty means that if you’re not working as a ship breaker, you’re selling a kidney.
As I was writing, I thought I was doing a pretty good job of providing a nice ecotastrophe setting. But that was before Deepwater Horizon blew itself up and started spewing oil into the Gulf. Now I’m wondering if I was too optimistic.
Cynicism aside, the most interesting thing about the oil rig disaster isn’t the ecological catastrophe–it’s that we were drilling there at all.
An oil company doesn’t just wake up one day and say “Gee, I think I’d like to drill for oil 5000 feet below the ocean’s surface! That sounds like fun!” They do it because they’ve run out of easy oil. They’re throwing every bit of technological know-how into projects that are just at the edge of human ingenuity and technology to get out the energy and keep the party rolling. And they don’t stop drilling at 5000 feet, that’s where they start. Sometimes, they go as deep as 35,000 feet.
That’s amazing technology. It’s also called going after the scraps.
Our parents and grandparents got all the easy oil. We’re currently busy eating up the last bits, and we’re giving our kids…. well, not a whole lot. Because, after all, it wasn’t like we were going to use all that oil for anything other than a flight to Disney World or to manufacture anything more important than a new iPad. It wasn’t like we were going to use that oil to build a wind turbine so our kids would have energy of their own, down the road, when they really need it. We were just going to waste it. Dumping it into the Gulf versus dumping it out our tailpipes? As far as our kids are concerned, it might be six of one, half a dozen of the other.
And that’s where Ship Breaker comes in. I wanted to write a story for young people set inside the consequences of our present. Life when the bill comes due, so to speak. But beyond all that disaster stuff, I also wanted to write an adventure story, because, if you can’t tell by now, I’m sort of depressing to hang out with. I even depress myself. So I wanted Ship Breaker to be gripping and pulse-pounding, instead of relentlessly depressing. And I also wanted the kids in my story to have a chance at winning. I mostly won’t write an upbeat or hopeful story for adults, because we so clearly don’t deserve it, but for young people, who haven’t yet started screwing things up, I wanted to at least provide the possibility of something better. A window into a better future, so to speak.
So Nailer works as a ship breaker on Bright Sands Beach, tearing apart oil tankers for scavenge quota, and fighting to survive in his brutal broken world. But out on the waters of the Gulf, he can see beautiful high-tech clipper ships sailing past. They’ve got high-altitude parasails and hydrofoils, and they’re fast and they’re sleek, and they’re completely unlike the ships that he tears apart every day. They’re right there, in his sight, but just out of reach. And if he’s smart enough and lucky enough, he might find a way to get out to them.