Paolo Bacigalupi

On the art of message fiction and how to talk about environmentalism through science fiction and fantasy,

Click here for the full interview transcript with Paolo Bacigalupi.

“…a lot of people I feel like sort of move into these camps where you could either be true to your art or you can be a commercial sell-out hack, you know, f****r….and this is all you’ve got. And to me it really was more like okay so this is the puzzle box that we’re working with which is like I’ve got my values, there’s the commercial space that I want to be in if I want to transmit my values. Is there some kind of win-win? And you’re looking for that idea that there actually is, if you’re a clever monkey, you can figure out the win-win scenario. And so a lot of my early work was trying to figure out what’s my clever monkey version of like the win-win, where I get to talk about exactly things I want and the publishing houses are like ‘nom nom nom nom.'”

Writing Solutions in Values Fiction

“...that’s where the reader can start living with the character, instead of watching them as paper-board cut-outs.” 

In this clip, author Paolo Bacigalupi discusses how he writes fictional solutions into the personas and experiences of the characters that populate his novels. 

Discussion Questions

  1. Ecological message fiction provides a space for authors to imagine inspired, inventive technology for the future. Bacigalupi believes that crafting these ideas for a better life within dystopian settings ultimately creates a more powerful message for his readers. Do you agree? Why or why not? Can you think of any examples of message fiction that are not set within a dystopian context?

  2. The focus on a ‘chosen one’ or set of heroes as the solution to the problems presented in values fiction can be limiting for a narrative’s overall message. Why do you think this would be? Are there any broader societal implications for ‘chosen one’ style-plots? Is there a situation in which this narrative structure would be useful?

  3. Bacigalupi says that writing fully “lived-in”, interesting characters with varied perspectives on the topic at hand is more effective in getting your message across than creating characters who specifically espouse your values. Do you agree with Bacigalupi? As a reader, what do you find you relate most to in the characters you read?

  4. Bacigalupi cites Gene Wolfe’s claim that those who want to write values fiction need to be able to argue all sides of the argument they’re engaging with in order to make their own point as strong as possible. Can you think of any topic in which arguing all sides would completely contradict your own values as a writer? Would you do it anyway? 

Writing Exercises

  1. Bacigalupi mentions The Water Knife’s Catherine Case, a corrupt businessperson who sabotages the water boards of rival states in order to profit off of Southern Nevada’s water supply. Without necessarily having read The Water Knife, take two minutes to imagine a character that would reflect a different perspective on the global drought.

  2. Now, with a partner, imagine that same character is faced with a values conundrum, one in which they aren’t sure which path is the right one to take. Write a scene in which the character never wavers in their beliefs, and sticks to their values all the way through. Have your partner write a scene in which their character chooses a different path. Compare and discuss. Does either scene have a stronger values message? Which was more compelling to read?

  3. Keeping Bacigalupi’s advice in mind, write a short values fiction narrative on a problem in your own life, and use characters and setting to propose a solution. 

Additional Readings

  • You can read Bacigalupi’s short story, The Tamarisk Hunterhere. Other works of his mentioned in this clip include:

    • Shipbreaker (2010)
    • The Water Knife (2015)

  •  Mohanraj and Bacigalupi also mention work by authors Cory Doctorow and Gene Wolfe.

Paolo Bacigalupi is an internationally bestselling American science fiction and fantasy writer. His writing often considers questions of sustainability and the effects of climate change. For more of Bacigalupi’s work or to read more about his latest novel for adults, The Water Knife, check out his website, Facebook, or Twitter. Listen to his full interview here (29:17). 

Tags: message fiction, values, environmental, writing characters

Mary Anne Mohanraj: […] Do you try and offer solutions? Because I feel like that’s sometimes where I see message fiction going awry. So I think of Cory Doctorow right. And I love Cory’s work in many ways. But I think on occasion his economic analyses – he has such a desire to see the working class triumph right, that sometimes I feel like it interferes with his stories, like for end of For the Wind. I found it implausible right, that all of these worker collectives ended up just triumphing over the, sorry spoilers, these massive corporations in a relatively easy manner. And so maybe if you could talk a little about how that – I don’t even know – I’m trying to think if you even present solutions really.

Paolo Bacigalupi: So I almost do it in the same way, that I do – I almost do it in the same exact way that I do, you know, present the problems, is that those things become background objects that populate the story. So one of the things I was interested in Shipbreaker, I was interested in renewables and the opportunities of renewables. So, you know, it’s really hard to write about how cool wind turbines are, [laughter], in a story. But, you know, wind is interesting. And I was interested in, okay, so what about a new age of sail. What if we had a new age of sail where we stopped using carbon to move goods and services around the world and instead went back to sail. And we had a global economy based on sail, and literally based on canvas and wooden boats. And so then you think, okay, what would the future be if you said we’re gonna use sail, so it’s gonna be low carbon, but it’s gonna use all of our technology prowess. And so what would we build then? So we end up with clipper ships with high-altitude para sails or hydro coils or all these things. And suddenly you’re sort of talking about an inspiring technology. And I think that in science fiction this is hugely powerful stuff. Like these are, you know –

Mary Anne Mohanraj: This is what I heard referred to, at least with the eco stuff, as solar punk, right. So instead of a grim version, here is the hopeful, inventive, ecological future.

Paolo Bacigalupi: Right. And so for me there was an opportunity to sort of pair a story about a kid who’s tearing apart this ancient oil tanker and struggling to survive, but out on the water he could see these beautiful sailing ships. And the idea is that, “if I could get out there, if I could get on those ships, my life gets better.” And so then you can kind of encapsulate a couple of different ideas, both the wreckage of the world, the unplanned and ill-thought out world, and also the opportunity of something better. And there’s something there, like, for me was really powerful. And you know, but it’s not necessarily like boom boom boom we need to build more sailing ships. Like isn’t this a cool idea? Wouldn’t these be neat? Like what if we did more with this?

Mary Anne Mohanraj: Do you think that – I guess I’m wondering, do you see pitfalls for when people are trying- other pitfalls that we haven’t discussed yet. Maybe when people are trying to write message fiction, ways that they go awry. For example, my own work has a lot to do with race and national politics. And I feel like there’s a lot of singular solutions right. Here is the chosen one who is going to lead the people in a resistance battle. We’re here in Dublin at World Con, so I’ve been looking at a lot of Irish post-colonial history and so the narratives often get framed as you know here is a set of heroes. And I think genre is particularly susceptible to that, right, the chosen one narrative. And so one thing I prefer to see are a polyphony of approaches in a story where there’s some people who are doing a worker collective, and there’s some people who are trying to mobilize the economy in certain ways, and there is some people in active politics, and there’s some people burning the system right. And seeing how all of that together interacts. I don’t know if any of that sparks for you in terms of your approach or other people’s approaches.

Paolo Bacigalupi: So the things I think about when I’m like thinking about – you know I’m trying to illustrate a bunch of approaches or something. So something like The Water Knife, where I was writing about drought in the southwest and climate change, I wanted to sort of illustrate people who planned and people who hadn’t planned. And so Phoenix is a devastated city where they hadn’t done a lot of planning and they’ve really been impacted by long running droughts and stuff like that. And Las Vegas is a place that really looked around and said, “Oh bad stuff is coming. We need to start building these really highly efficient arcologies. We really need to be planning, we also need to be sort of weaponizing ourselves and going after other people’s water and stuff.” But they’re really hard eyed about trying to, you know. And so you see the idea was that you’re illustrating a couple of different perspectives on like how they engaged with the world. The way I think that relates is that you still can’t say that like, have any of these people specifically espousing their values exactly. It’s far more interesting to have them be fully realized. And this is the thing, you really want them to be interesting characters; people with their own hopes and dreams, their own motivations. I have people like Katherine Case, who’s the head of the southern Nevada Water Authority, so she’s the water, you know, sort of Czar. And she’s a really hard-ass character. And she’s also, you know, I hope, somebody who’s presented as being like, this is the world I see, I am not here to be mean. I’m here to make sure that Las Vegas has water. And her portrayal and Angel’s portrayal as her Water Knife, who goes out and actually blows up other people’s water treatment plants. Like what motivates him to connect with this woman and to work for her, and to go out and do her dirty deeds, and stuff like that. And then to get to the other side of that, who are his victims and what are their perspectives, and stuff like that. The more you’re presenting people as fully lived-in people who have a reason for being the way they are, for doing the things they do. And then having them run into real conundrums with the things that they believe. It’s not like, oh clearly my right path but they’re challenged in some way and their right path might be the wrong path, and their immediate path might end up needing to veer. That’s where the story gets you involved. That’s where the reader can start living with the character instead of watching them as kind of like paper board cut-outs representing ideas. Yeah I’m not sure but it might’ve been you who actually made the comment about Jean Wolfe, did you?

Mary Anne Mohanraj: No, no, somebody else.

Paolo Bacigalupi: So I was talking to somebody about values stuff and if you want to make a values argument with your fiction. This was something Jean Wolfe had said. You better be able to walk pretty close to making the opposite argument as well in your fiction. So that you feel like you really argued all of the sides.

Mary Anne Mohanraj: It’s something we try and teach an English lit class or composition class. You have to walk the students through the counter-argument thing. You don’t want to just set up a straw man argument that’s easy to knock down. You actually – the best essays which take on the real, serious, difficult challenges that are being posed by opposing sides, and then addresses them. Doesn’t mock them, take them lightly. 

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