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.


Ship Breaker: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Follow Paolo Bacigalupi on Twitter.

25 Comments on “The Big Idea: Paolo Bacigalupi”

  1. Hope that the reprint of Paolo’s Pump Six is brought forward due to his recent awards (he mentioned on Twitter that it was due for reprint in December) – I’ve seen it going for not insubstantial prices on the second hand market.

    Windup Girl is fantastic. Vaguely like Ian McDonald’s City of Gods. Not sure what the genre is, but there needs to be more of it.

  2. I love the ‘going out to dinner’ analogy. If you don’t mind and I give you credit, I would live to copy it into an email to send to my friends and family. I will of course plug the book.

    PS – it caught me off guard because my grandmother used to tell a similar and real story about a cousin of hers. The adults ate at the dinner table and the children waited. Then the plates were left on the table, not washed, and the children sat down and ate whatever was left. It wasn’t as bad as your story, since enough food was prepared to cover the second team, but it was definitely a bit icky.

  3. The Windup Girl was the best original SF I’ve read in half a decade. YA or not, I’ll be grabbing a copy of Shipbreaker this weekend.

    I really, really hate that Bacigalupi fellow, by the way. He’s one of those writers that make me realize just how much better I have to get at this skiffy writing business.

  4. Good stuff, and great fun to quibble with.

    For example: see the recipe for “Hangtown fry.” There was a piece on NPR on Wednesday about tracking crashing fish populations by looking at what was in the recipe books.

    We’ve been eating the scraps for a long time. I think Temple Grandon called it the “bad becoming normal” syndrome.

    The trick is that you don’t tell the kids what they missed. Then they’re happy anyway.

    I mean, how would you feel if you found that mammoth tasted way better than beef? Would you have been working so hard on that stupid domestication idea?

  5. What’s scary is that isn’t there already an area where ship breaking is the primary income for most people?

    Oh, I just googled it. I thought there was a place that this was common, but I was wrong. There are many, many places where this is already happening.

    The future is here.

  6. That analogy is brilliant. I’ll put your name on it whenever I send it, but I will send it (or, hey, I could just send the link!). Also looking forward to the book. (Sigh, the list gets ever longer…)

  7. I just wanted to stop in and say that I read Shipbreaker in one sitting and it is every bit as intelligent and beautifully written as you’d expect from a Nebula award winner. That Paolo guy is smart.

    I HIGHLY recommend it.

  8. I picked up this book the other day – It’s sitting away on my shelf, waiting for me to finish up a couple of other books. I think I need to bump it up a bit.

  9. Well, since I’ll be picking up Kid vs. Squid, I guess I can grab one more…….

  10. Dead on sir when you observe our parents and grandparents have already drilled and recovered the easy oil. Out here in the Permian Basin of west Texas and southeastern New Mexico we are surrounded by “stripper” oil wells. Wells pumping out the leftovers after the big oil reservoirs have been sucked dry.

    What is really sad is that for a century we have been using oil for energy, for fuel. Started out as a chemistry major in college and took organic chemistry based on the element of carbon. Oil is so much more useful as a seed raw material for non-energy uses. We can make wonderful pharmaceuticals from oil. But no, for a hundred years we burn the stuff up.

    You new YA novel must now be acquired and read. Christmas saw my two sons send my way the Pump Six collection and Windup Girl. I like the way you think, man. That future could work. It really could. And I am not so sure it would be terribly bad, except for the generipping and private corporations ruining the food chain for profits. May Windup Girl win the Hugo. Short list the one of novels winning both the Nebula and the Hugo. Dune was the first I think.

  11. Thank goodness for Paolo. There’s a kind of wildness to his writing, and a brutal honesty in both his fiction and interviews, like I haven’t seen in so concentrated a form since Vonnegut. Bless your guts, Paolo!

  12. I dig Paolo’s writing style. And I really like his book covers. His books are complete packages, works of art, interior and exterior. I can’t wait to get my hands on this, ordering it from a small independent bookstore in Seoul tomorrow. I don’t get excited for new SF books. Was pleased he won the Nebula. Early 00s Bacigalupi is my new early 80s Gibson and early 90s Stephenson.

  13. I read Ship Breaker last week and I absolutely loved it. Books with strong environmental themes are usually problematic for me because I received my education in that direction and have the unfortunate tendency to focus on that aspect of the novel. Get it wrong and it ruins the book for me even if it is a well-written story and I know damn well it’s fiction not science.
    Ship Breaker does a great job of holding us a mirror without compromising the pulse-pounding action, to borrow the author’s words, and that is quite an achievement.

  14. Yes, Paolo can bedepressing to hang out with at times, but he’s also funny, intelligent and fascinating to listen to. And his writing makes me envious. He deserves all the acclaim and awards.

    Brian Hiebert

  15. The dinner table analogy is brilliant. However, no one is drilling at 35,000 feet (the bottom of the Marianas Trench) and no one is ever going to. There comes a point where the energy needed to extract a resource is greater than that given by the resource, so that resource remains in the ground (unless it’s extracted for other reasons, but there are other, cheaper ways to create petrochemicals also). Guess I could buy the premise of this novel if it wasn’t set on the Gulf Coast. By the time things can get that bad there, billions of people will have died around the world and no one is going to be sailing high tech clipper ships as global civilization will have collapsed.
    I think that’s why so many people deny the science behind global warming: they just don’t care if the worse-case scenarios come true. The rich countries will remain rich(er) than most of the world is NOW while the presently poor countries cease to exist as viable civilizations. Of course, they ignore the little detail that people in the poor countries aren’t stupid and that weapons of mass destruction keep getting cheaper and cheaper.

  16. Now that I’m temping and no longer quite so desperately broke as I was, naturally my local bookstore doesn’t have this one. Or The Windup Girl, for that matter.

    On the other hand, my local library system apparently has both. Libraries save the day again! So, tomorrow I get to try Paolo Bacigalupi’s books for the first time. Between this Big Idea and the way everyone’s been talking about him, I have to say I’m pretty excited.

  17. Yeah, we’re not the brightest when it comes to energy. I mean, look at ethanol— we take a food crop, sink lots of energy into it, and then get less out of it when we turn it into fuel. Brilliant.

    What I want to see (idea courtesy of my dad) is green waste ethanol— think about kudzu. Or the ^&*$#@ blackberry bushes I’m having to rip out of my backyard.

  18. Paolo and Diogenes: I think you two are talking about different things. Deepwater Horizon drilled to 35,000′ in water that was only 4,100′ deep. They also drilled a well in water that was 10,000′ deep, which is the maximum water depth that rig was capable of working in.

    Drilling in water as deep as the Marianas Trench is impractical and probably impossible with today’s technology. But that’s not to say somebody won’t try it someday — extracting oil from shale, coal and tar sands was considered too expensive and impractical not too long ago, and yet we’re doing all of those things now.

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