Earning the Future: A Q&A with Paolo Bacigalupi

“My father gambled on Thoreau,” writes Paolo Bacigalupi. “I am my father’s son.”

Bacigalupi is referring to Henry David Thoreau, and he is speaking in the voice of Ong, the quiet, humble protagonist of his science-fiction story “The Gambler,” which we have republished on Shareable.net as part of our Shareable Futures series.

You might not expect to hear a reference to Thoreau in a science-fiction story. But to understand Bacigalupi’s fiction, you should first know that he is an environmentalist and alternative journalist who served as online editor of High Country News, the award-winning, Colorado-based newsmagazine that covers public lands, natural resources, wildlife, and other issues facing the American West. Not surprisingly, his fiction tends to be preoccupied with the effects of today’s irresponsible behavior on tomorrow’s world.

The other thing to know is that Bacigalupi (pronounced BAH-cha-ga-loo-py, according to a profile in Denver’s newsweekly) has spent long stretches of time traveling throughout Southeast Asia, living in China, and learning Chinese, a perspective that permeates his stories. Throughout his travels, Bacigalupi wrote hundreds of thousands of words that were never published—four entire novels. Starting in 1999, he managed to publish a trickle of highly praised short stories—including “The Gambler,” which was nominated for numerous awards and appeared in his 2008 collection Pump Six and Other Stories.

“The Gambler” is not a grim story—it is, in fact, rather inspiring—though its particular future grows out of some of today’s grimmest environmental and journalistic trends. The story succeeds because its protagonist Ong is so beautifully drawn and the dilemmas he faces are so dramatically compelling. As with all the best science fiction, Ong’s life allows us to envision the effects of technological change on human feelings and behavior—and Ong’s choice at the end of the story suggests how we might ethically, even heroically, face the challenges of the future.

Last year, Bacigalupi finally published his first novel, The Windup Girl, to immense commercial and critical acclaim. Time magazine rated it as one of the “Top Ten Fiction Books of 2009," calling Bacigalupi “a worthy successor to William Gibson.” Last month, The Windup Girl won both the Nebula and Compton awards for best novel—just as Bacigalupi’s second (young adult) novel, Ship Breaker, appeared to similarly great reviews.

In the following Q&A, Bacigalupi and I explore the questions that drive much of his fiction (and, not coincidentally, recall the preoccupations of Henry David Thoreau): What is an individual’s responsibility in the face of ecological catastrophe? How is the decline of journalism related to the decline of the environment? How are today’s choices shaping the future—and how can we prevent our worst predictions from coming to pass? Most of all, how can we earn a future in which humanity and the planet will survive—and perhaps even thrive?

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Jeremy Adam Smith: Tell me about the origins of “The Gambler.”

Paolo Bacigalupi: Stories for me often don’t have a clear starting point. There’s a lot of different themes that all swirl together in a way that I just hope is coherent. I actually blogged about the process of developing “The Gambler,” in an entry titled something like, “How to Write a Story by Throwing Away a Story.” Which is often the way I write. I’ll start with an idea, work it through to a fair degree, and then realize that 90 percent of what I’m doing is absurd, stupid, and utterly ridiculous—but there is this one tiny little piece in it that has a spark, something really interesting.

That’s what happened in "The Gambler." The only really starting point for "The Gambler" was that I wanted to write a story that was related somehow to the environment. And in the process of writing a really shitty story about the environment, I discovered this other really interesting story about journalism and the free press and censorship and open information sharing.

Which had been on my mind; I knew that stuff was all there in the story, it was part of my day job—and yet for some reason I didn’t start there, with a story about how we share information, and how an open society’s information structures can have similarities with those of a closed society in really ironic ways.

JAS: Can you describe those ironies?

PB: If you’re in a closed society, you’ve got a tiny little spigot of relevant information. Everything else is state-run media trash. That’s the stuff that tells you how the children sang for the general or how much the factory has produced, and those are the kind of toothless headlines that fill the newspapers in places like Laos or China.

In a closed society, there is information available but it’s mostly trash, so you have to spend a fair amount of time trying to ferret out what and where the real news is. If somebody has been disappeared, trying to ferret out why they disappeared or how they were disappeared—that’s all going to run through a backdoor set of information sharing structures.

JAS: Give us an example, please.

PB: When SARS was hitting China in 2003, you weren’t seeing it being talked about in state-run media at all. There were a few newspaper reports of some people getting sick, but then the story just disappeared, total silence.

Meanwhile, though, all these middle-class cell phone users were calling each other with news of seeing people in this hospital or that hospital—and so this wind of rumor running across China’s cell phones is how and where the news moved. Eventually the scale of the crisis became so apparent that even the government of China couldn’t deny it anymore, and they had to admit that they had the SARS epidemic on their hands.

In other words, cell phones had democratized information sharing in China: you could text somebody, you could call somebody—there were very few barriers to moving information around amongst groups. That wasn’t true when I was first there in 1991, when you just didn’t have that physical technology to move information around.

The SARS crisis comes to Korea. Credit: Hildeborg

JAS: Yet other kinds of stories, perhaps equally important, still disappear down the memory hole. What made SARS different?

PB: In the particular case of SARS, people felt like they had a high, personal stake in it, and so it got legs within the rumor mill. And on top of that, you had middle- and upper-class people in China who were connected with each other and to the political structure, who had access to the means of communication, and they had an interest in pushing that story to the forefront despite the attempt to censor it, because they worried that they were all going to die if they didn’t.

That’s not true of other kinds of stories, the ones that don’t have some kind of elite constituency. In a state-run media space, you aren’t necessarily going to hear about how many fish are going to die because a dam is getting erected or how that’s going to screw up a river system, that’s won’t be recorded or discussed. And there’s no interest group within the country that’s going to push that story forward the way SARS got pushed, because it’s not pressing enough, there’s no immediate issue of human survival.

So that’s what happens in a controlled media environment, that an environmental story isn’t going to get any coverage because it’s not in the immediate interest of the state, or anyone else, to cover it: we want to build the dam, we want to generate the electricity, and that’s the way it’s gonna be.

JAS: In what way is that outcome similar to what happens in a more open society? Where’s the irony?

PB: If you move over into the free market media economy, you find that we have unlimited access to information. We have more information than we know what to do with. But the result is almost the same as in a closed society.

It’s not a censorship issue, though—it’s an interest issue. Where you are going to focus your attention, and the amount of time you have to focus your attention, is finite, and so that means the building of a dam in the Northwest will get as much critical media attention as it would in a place like Laos, for similar reasons—the mechanism is different but the result is almost the same, where the information that might be important isn’t actually going to make it out into any kind of relevant sphere and have any kind of impact.

JAS: This gets to core of what I wanted to discuss with you. We’re in this very open, information-saturated media environment, where stories, video, data—any kind of package of information—can be infinitely replicated and infinitely shared. But as you suggest, so much gets lost; the information we get is not necessarily the information that serves our long-term survival. This to me is the most interesting theme of “The Gambler”—your protagonist comes up with a very specific response to the market forces that are preventing him from writing the stories that he thinks are important. What can we do to get the important stuff out there?

PB: When I was working at High Country News, my job as the online editor was to find ways to increase the amount of traffic moving through the site. The number of page views equaled the amount of ad revenue. So I just needed someone clicking through; I needed the hit, I needed the eyeball. Each discreet click is the moment when you’re generating any revenue at all. And it turns out that the most fluffy blog post or bit of opinion generates exactly as much revenue as one of our in-depth pieces of reporting.

If you’re just looking at the ratio of invested money and effort verses the return, that means there’s just one logical thing you can do, which is to blog more and do less investigative journalism. In fact, if you took all that money you invested in an in-depth reported news story that took a month and a half to research, with all these expensive freedom of information requests, and instead invested it into paying some people to blog ten times a day on almost anything—they’re going to generate more traffic and more revenue than they would researching real news stories.

Theoretically, the journalist’s responsibility is to ferret out the most important information she can and display it in a way that will make sense to a reader, so the reader will understand the story and understand why it’s relevant to his life. In newspapers, you weren’t discreetly measuring each news nugget; it was a package of material that filled the news hole around the advertising that you’re selling, and so the entertainment section and the comics were part of that package, but that drove overall circulation, and there was no way to get in there and measure and say, “You know what? Only comics generate revenue, so we’re not even going to invest in anything else.”

Today, we’re moving into this online space where each news nugget needs to pull its own weight. There’s a negative economic incentive to publish a longer, in-depth story, even if you break into five pieces. It’s ridiculous.

JAS: It seems to me that these economic and technological changes increase the responsibility of the individual journalist to do the right thing, which is very much what “The Gambler” is about. In the atomized online environment you describe, how can journalism survive?

PB: There are only two ways I see investigative journalism surviving. One is to focus on elites, who actually need well-reported information about specific topic areas, and put up a pay wall between the elites and the information, as the Wall Street Journal or The Economist have done. You’re seeing those guys focus on specific interest groups, and specifically interest groups with money.

But if you’re talking about more broad-based, social reporting—news that’s important for you to know because of its impact on the kind of society we’re going to have—then I think you’re looking at nonprofit or foundation models, where the foundation finds satisfaction in finding and reporting certain kinds of information because they have a social function that they believe in, rather than a revenue function. You can balance that social mission partly against that revenue function, which is what I think High Country News is doing. Yes, they get some advertising, but they also have some loyal readers who believe in this project and donate a little bit extra, and on top of that, they go out and get foundation funding.

And between those different revenue streams, they can square the circle and survive. So that kind of journalism needs to be extremely unique and has to have a well-defined social mission, that is going to have to somehow connect up to someone who’s willing to fund that mission. If we’re going to see any good reporting on poverty or the environment, or even any interesting political reporting, it’s probably going to be not-for-profit. Personally, I can’t see it happening any other way.

JAS: In that sense, the audience is becoming more important—individuals have to step up and make donations if they want that kind of mission-driven reporting to survive. But is that audience of donors large enough to support the scale of journalism that we need?

PB: This is what “The Gambler” is partially about. I see a massive disinterest in real news reporting. I think something like Gawker media has its finger exactly where it needs to be, on the pulse of the world—where we’ll talk about your iPod and your car and the jerk du jour, but not about stories that are needlessly depressing, or that implicate you as responsible for the bad shape of the world. It's not great journalism, but it does generate a ton of hits, because it's precisely what we as an audience demand.

Really good journalism makes readers question how things are and whether or not things are working well. But successful media like Gawker have to pursue the opposite strategy, which is to make you feel good and comfortable in your skin. This isn't out of malice or cynicism, it's a necessary survival strategy for an online media company. When I read Gawker, I feel smart and clever, and safe. And as a result, I visit again and again. In fact, I find it fairly irresistable. I reward the company for wrapping me in its comforting blanket.

There’s a line in “The Gambler” that “no one wants to read depressing news”—and the truth is that we’d get those kinds of cancellations all the time at High Country News. Those people would say, “I just can’t take any more crummy news” or, “Why can’t you just write more upbeat stories?”

Which is pretty interesting—the awful is still there, it doesn’t go away, but people don’t want to hear about it, at least not all at once. In that sense, we get exactly the media we deserve. We don’t pay attention to the world around us and so we have media that don’t pay attention to the world around us.

The really interesting difference between an information-controlled state and an open information society is that in the controlled society people are absolutely starved for information. That’s why they have rumor mills and gossip systems and information trading. Meanwhile, we have unlimited access to information, but we often prefer not to look. We just don’t want to know. It’s like we’ve been given this wonderful gift and we just shit on it.

JAS: You’ve been an environmental journalist, and I think in some ways you could be called an environmental fiction writer. You’ve written a lot about resource depletion and overpopulation, and what kinds of social conditions those trends will create, how people might behave, what we can hope for in those kinds of extreme conditions. Your stories seem to implicitly ask readers to take steps now that might avert the futures you describe. What kind of specific changes are you trying to trigger in the reader, in the world? What are you hoping to achieve?

PB: I’m hoping to make people wonder whether the world is safe and good. [Laughter.] That pisses a lot of people off. One reaction is, “You’re crazy”; another is, “You’re trying to rain on my parade for no good reason.” Some say, “What makes you so special, why do you think you’re such a good person?”

And my answer is, “No, I’m not such a good person, and I’m sort of worried that I’m not a good person, that I should have ridden my bike to work this morning instead of driving my car on a cold day; that was a bad choice, that was me unloading a shotgun blast into the face of the next generation.”

But we don’t want to hear that. I guess as a writer, I’m trying to introduce a sense of disquiet in readers, which says maybe the world isn’t safe. People ask why I don’t write optimistic science fiction. My answer is that I feel like we haven’t earned those futures. We don’t actually even know where we’re going. People say, “We already know things are bad.”

But we really don’t; if we did, if we faced that horror, we would be acting in a really, really different ways. You can’t fly to science-fiction conventions and pump all this CO2 into the atmosphere and hang out with all your friends and think that’s an ethical behavior if you’ve actually internalized the question of what global warming really means. And we’re a long way from internalizing the horrors and complexities that might await us, or at least await the next generation.

JAS: We published an interview with Kim Stanley Robinson here at Shareable.net, and he’s coming from a perspective that’s very similar to yours, philosophically and politically. But his response to environmental crisis is the opposite of yours, to instead try to paint a picture of where we ought to be going.

PB: Kim Stanley Robinson writes great stuff. I think his approach is a relevant way to go at it, but positive futures really depend on how they’re handled. Painting a picture of where we should be going is great. But you don’t necessarily want to paint a picture that says that we’re going there right now, or that we’re going to make it. Because those are your unearned futures. I don’t want the reader to close a book depicting a positive future and to think we’ve already gone there. Because I think that leads back to a sense of inertia and safety. You don’t want create a consolatory story.

A coal-fired power plant outside of Boulder, Colorado. Credit: Dick Rochester

For example, I could write a novel that introduces a whole panoply of really interesting technologies that might actually be possible, that might get marketplace adoption, that might actually create a world that looks really cool. And yet none of those technologies actually exists. It’s like that whole clean coal thing—yeah, we might actually be able to do carbon sequestration…but we don’t now. So if you write a novel that suggests carbon sequestration is going to save us, you’re writing a lie. I’m dealing with this in a story I’m working on right now, and I’m dealing with it by pointing to some technologies that might have efficacy, without actually saying, “Here’s your solution and it works.”

I do like the idea of pointing in the right directions. I think you do have to give people a myth to live in to. Science fiction is a myth-building space. And we see science fiction as this fabulous art for helping us actually construct our futures. We have NASA scientists constructing rockets because they read about rockets in stories as children, and you see people building and participating in “Second Life” because they read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and they love the idea of the metaverse so much they thought, “I’m going to make it happen!”

Second Life screen shot. Credit: Bettina Tizzy

Science fiction writers can inspire creative change, really forward-moving stuff. That’s really cool, a worthy goal. But my fear is that a lot of it gets couched in this format that suggests solutions are easy and close at hand. I could write a story tomorrow about a government that isn’t corrupt and is actually forward-looking—but we don’t have one, so how the fuck do we get there? I don’t want our myths to seem too easily won. 

So I guess what we want is to build an optimism gene into people so that they’re ready to work but don’t actually become complacent, or think that they’ve read their future already. For example, I can’t count the number of people who are certain we’re going to the stars—but then you look at the state of the space program and what interstellar travel actually requires, and you think, I’m sorry, I don’t think we’re actually going to the stars, it’s not going to happen. But the myth is there and some people think that’s the future, that’s what’s going to solve our environmental problems—to get off the planet. It’s a non-existent solution and they feel safe about it.

JAS: Here in the Bay Area, especially in Silicon Valley, many people believe that open source could be a model for our entire society—if we design things with an open architecture, problems will emerge but the wisdom of crowds will sweep them away. It’s an article of faith, and it's embedded in Shareable's perspective.

PB: It’s just like capitalism, right? “Markets will respond.” But will the markets respond proactively instead of reactively? That’s where market forces often fail. You can’t solve a lot of problems after the fact. The pika will go extinct because we ran them out of their range with global warming—whoops! We can correct, but it doesn’t really matter to the pika. And the market may not value the pika or the correction, if one is possible.

North American pika. Credit: Michael Coppola

In open source, you see people throwing their energy to where their passions lie. And a lot of factors channel those passions: where they gain social currency and personal currency, where they get their cash, what carries prestige—a whole bunch of different things are going to determine which open source projects get funded, essentially by brains.

Right now, we have a fair amount of attention for Linux. Great. I love Linux. But that won’t translate into sustainability. In fact, it may even be contributing negatively. You have lots of people buying new computers, turning on computers, doing a whole bunch of different things to maintain their social connection to this project.

I’m biased, but I’m not sure, by the lights of my biases, that the things that are most important right now are going to be funded by the marketplace of minds that is open source. They might, but I’m cynical about what seems sexy right now. That interests me: how do you make sustainability questions sexy enough to focus enough decent minds on them to actually make something change?

JAS: Do you see your stories as trying to do that?

PB: In a way. But mainly, I’m trying to work on my own anxiety. I will read something, and I’ll start thinking about it, and I’ll worry—I worry a little bit about a monoculture crop that is owned by one particular corporation and the implications for how we get food and who has power.

Perhaps I have a fearful personality and so in a lot of ways I’m processing my own anxieties and traumas in my stories. If that translates into other people sharing those anxieties and traumas, it may inspire change. That would be fabulous.

But at a root level, I’m just working through fears. What does it mean that we have over 300,000 artificial chemicals in common use and almost none of them have been tested for human developmental impacts? We’re just running that experiment in real time. I’m a little concerned!

JAS: “I’m going to write a story about it!”

PB: Right. So I wrote stories like “Small Offerings” or “Pump Six.” And those are stories that are inspired by examples of just a couple of chemicals—and you see one of those, BPA, getting a little press now, but that’s just one chemical out of 300,000.

I would like my stories to provide catalysts for people to start considering certain topics. I would like to talk about endocrine disruptors, GM foods, peak oil, species extinction—I want to seed those questions out there. I don’t have much interest in writing fiction that doesn’t address how we order our world and where we’re going. I wouldn’t say that I’m rigorously extrapolative. But I would say that I’m interested in the thought experiment, testing who are we, where are we, what’s the fundamental reality around us, and if we actually assessing that reality correctly.

Urban agriculture in Detroit, Michigan. Credit: Vanessa Miller.

But also, there are all these nodes of people doing really entrepenuerial, really interesting work. The problem for me is that I can’t assess whether their virus is going to spread. That’s what I’m trying to figure out, if these things actually get said enough to make a difference. You see a guy buying up land in Detroit and trying to cultivate urban gardening, and you think, this is an interesting thing. Is this where we’re headed? Or is it a dead end? Which ones are going to gain traction? I can’t tell. I meet people from time to time where I think they could change the world. But there are thousands of people like this and they’re all vying for attention and light and oxygen, to grow a little bit larger. And meanwhile, there are some really big, powerful entities who are trying to make sure that they don’t.

JAS: This is making me think of the roboticist Rodney Brooks. For a long time, artificial intelligence researchers tried to create brains that could construct three dimensional models of their environment and then use them to negotiate that environment. Then Brooks and others came along and they said, “What we really need to do is to create lots of stupid little robots, each of whom has a tiny little piece of the environment.” Then the engineering problem became, how can you get all these stupid little robots to work together so that they can accomplish a task or overcome an obstacle? In some ways, you’re describing the Rodney Brooks scenario for human kind, where we each have a piece of the puzzle but we need the robust network to find the way forward.

PB: The real trick is to get the robots to actually care! Here’s what scares me the most: I feel like I have a pretty good handle on sustainability and yet here I am about to get on airplane to go to the American Library Association meeting to flog my books. And again, I’m firing a shotgun into the face of the next generation by contributing to global warming, just to meet a selfish short-term need.

It’s like Slavoj Žižek says: I know but I don’t want to know, therefore I don’t know. I recognize the problem but the problem is so horrifying that I look away, and continue on exactly on the same path. That’s a very human tendency, and it frightens me.

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