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Pump Six: A Conversation with Paolo Bacigalupi, a Next-Generation SF Writer

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Paolo Bacigalupi isn't the most prolific writer, but like another talented SF creator, Ted Chiang, he makes each story count. His fiction has appeared in High Country News, Salon.com, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. It has been anthologized in various “Year’s Best” collections of short science fiction and fantasy, been nominated for the Nebula and Hugo awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best SF short story of the year. Bacigalupi's new (and first) collection, Pump Six and Other Stories, contains all of his short fiction (as well as "Pump Six," original to the book) and is getting raves, including a starred review in Publishers Weekly. PW wrote in part "Deeply thought provoking, Bacigalupi’s collected visions of the future are equal parts cautionary tale, social and political commentary and poignantly poetic, revelatory prose." In short, Bacigalupi is the real deal. I talked to Bacigalupi earlier this year via email...

Amazon.com: Where are you, right now, as you're writing these answers?
Paolo Bacigalupi: I'm sitting in my office. It's a one-room work space above the local bookstore. I rent it for $150/month. Its got mauve walls. Carpeting with a green twining vines and pink vaginal flower patterns. The place used to be a rooming house; I gather that's where the carpet comes from. It's poorly heated, so I've got a space heater. The window view is of our local grocery's parking lot: a lot of gray snow, pickup trucks, and some rich person's Land Cruiser. The bookstore has a deck off the front that overhangs the sidewalk, so I can go out there and watch dump trucks drive by.

Amazon.com: What do you like most about short fiction?
Paolo Bacigalupi: I like that there's a clarity to short stories that tends to get lost when you write to a longer form. The essence of the thing seems to be better encapsulated in short stories, thanks to the enforced discipline of trying to keep a story to 10,000 words. I mostly write novelettes, which gives me enough time to build a world and to give the reader an experience, but isn't so long that you get tangled up in tangential plotlines and extraneous detail. There's just not much room for muddy thinking in the short form; you get in and you get out. And the result for me is that a story often boils down to a single scene that will hopefully resonate with the reader long after they put the story down. I think that's what I like most about the short forms: you don't lose that key scene and you don't get a muddy experience. If I do my work right, I can burn an image into a reader's mind.With novels, there can be dozens of brilliant moments, but they all sort of sludge together. The take-away just doesn't seem as strong. It can be deep or rich or immersive, but the hammer blow of the story is muted.

Amazon.com: What do you most value in the fiction you love?
Paolo Bacigalupi: I was just browsing through my books looking for something to read, and I was looking for something fun. I was looking for something light, and I was looking specifically for characters that I would enjoy spending time with. More than anything, I like characters who will entertain me. I ended up with an old Spencer novel by Robert Parker. Clunky prose, but I like seeing Spencer and Hawk banter with each other. So overall, I'd say I value engaging characters. Ones who are smarter and funnier and more adventurous than I am. And to be even more specific, I like wit. If a story is witty, I'm hooked and will return to it. And adventure. I like adventures. And... Mostly, I'd say that I look for raw enjoyment and fun. Those are the things I re-read.

Amazon.com: What ideas about fiction have been foremost in your mind of late?
Paolo Bacigalupi: Two things have been on my mind lately. One about the place of science fiction in the larger marketplace, and the other is about the tone of my writing. With SF, I've been thinking a lot about how its been ghetto-ized into its little genre corner, mostly ignored by the outside world, and I've been thinking about how wierd that is, considering the current state of the world. In my mind, SF is the one literature that has the tools to really speak about where we're going, who we are as a society and species, and it's the one art form that provides a playground for thinking seriously about where we want to be going and where we don't. I write a fair amount of dystopic stuff, because I want to toss some warning buoys out into the sea, maybe get people to think a little before we all steer ourselves onto the rocks. SF is the literature that does that best, whether I'm thinking about global warming or biodiversity or GMO foods, or hormone mimics. So I'm thinking about SF and wondering how it can make its way out of its ghetto so that it can talk to a larger population about these issues that are all around us and are already defining our future course. I think about books like 1984 and We when I think about SF. For Orwell and Zamiatin, SF provided profound tools for talking about politics. These days, I think it provides profound tools for talking about the environment...but because the genre has gotten so specialized and isolated, it's difficult to reach out if you're labeled genre. SF means spaceships, now. at least to most people. I'm really curious if that can be altered somehow, because even though I like spaceships, I think SF is a bigger tent than that.

Amazon.com: What do you see as common themes in your work?
Paolo Bacigalupi: Primarily, I've been writing about environmental concerns. Not exclusively, but environmental issues are complex enough and meaty enough to interest me, and I've found that science fiction has tools that can't be matched by other genres when it comes to looking at the environment. With [this collection], I feel like a lot of what I'm doing is asking questions about ourselves and where we're headed: What happens if we really can find a technological solution to every problem?  What happens if we face real water scarcity? What happens if we can live forever? What does it mean for one culture to swallow another? What happens if our love of celebrities and their fabulous lifestyles has no limit? What happens if hormone mimics start impacting human intelligence?  I take those questions and then start building.  Because I'm writing SF,  I don't have to chain myself to what's here right now, I can whisper instead about what's over that hill, around the bend, out of sight--the thing that's waiting for us on the road. For me, it's a chance to make sense of these strange times we live in, and then make a reader feel the implications of those things, viscerally.  If I do my job right, I'll keep the reader engaged, and leave them thinking afterward.

For excerpts and news about Pump Six and Other Stories, check out the book's webpage.

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I have yet to see a vaginal shaped flower. However, a labia shaped flower, well, they are everywhere. Even shelled mussels from the sea. But vagina? That is an internal job. You wouldn't say 'prostate stymen' now would you?

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