Wild Authors: Paolo Bacigalupi

by Mary Woodbury

Paolo Bacigalupi’s novels tell stories about human impacts on the environment – and, in turn, the results of these impacts back on humans. An award-winning author, Bacigalupi often explores bioengineering and loss of fossil fuels or fresh water in his stories. His novels in this field include The Windup Girl, Shipbreaker, The Drowned Cities, Tool of War, and The Water Knife. A new novel – co-authored by Tobias Buckell – The Tangled Lands, came out in 2018 from Saga Press. His Pump Six and Other Stories is an earlier short story collection that takes into consideration a future Earth, post-environmental neglect and abuse.

Most of Bacigalupi’s fiction and nonfiction deal with root causes of not just climate change but the kind of morality that causes destruction to our physical place on the planet and also to our social and economic structures. Of course, all these systems are related to each other. The definitions given for eco-fiction overall take into account stories that do not disconnect from natural history, natural present, or natural future – that a connection to the environment is noted richly in the story. Bacigalupi accomplishes this in his fiction.

I consider Bacigalupi one of the more prolific storytellers dealing with climate change. As pointed out often in this series, climate change can be explained as a hyperobject, a vast and looming object that is so large it’s hard to grasp. Climate change isn’t really just one subject either. It is connected to a series of other issues that build up to it or trickle down from it. It takes a crafty artist to place moral observations and questions into a story without preaching. I’ll cover a few of his stories here, but urge readers to investigate the rest.

The Windup Girl is a novel in which fossil fuel sources have been depleted. The story takes place in Thailand, where it’s evident the seas are rising. “Windup” refers to a type of spring, called a kink-spring, used to store energy and which post-dates fuel used in the old combustion engine. “Girl” refers to a beautiful genetically engineered windup girl, Emiko, who works in a strip club. In this future age, non-human people, like Emiko, are genetically engineered to be obedient in order to do slave work for the rich, and natural biodiversity has all but disappeared in food growing. Bio-engineering everything has brought on disease and terrorism.

Thailand, however, tries to protect against modified and mutant seeds and beings, and a few brave scientists are trying to hunt out any remaining non-modified foods. As you can imagine, in a world where mega-corporations and rich elite cater to their own whims, there’s also corruption, hit men, and bad guys. Then we have the good guy scientists. So in that sense, this novel, like Bacigalupi’s others, is a suspenseful mystery that is fast-paced and keeps the reader on edge.

As previously pointed out in this series, it’s best that authors aren’t didactic in storytelling. Bacigalupi accomplishes this well by just telling a very good story whose world-building is palpable and appeals to all our senses, and whose characters draw us in. Io9 states:

The Windup Girl is obviously about the geopolitics of the present… and yet Bacigalupi never slides into moralism or judgment. All his characters have their flaws and heroic moments… Ultimately that’s what makes this debut novel so exciting. It’s rare to find a writer who can create such well-shaded characters while also building a weird new future world.

Telling stories about our future Earth seems to be Bacigalupi’s specialty, and Ship Breaker is another story I’ll look at. Geared toward a young adult audience, the novel takes place on the Gulf Coast in the United States in a post-ecologically collapsed world in which New Orleans has been nearly swallowed up by the sea and people literally break old oil tankers apart in order to scavenge for any valuables left. The main character is a teenager named Nailer, whose life is tough – his father is a drug-user and abuses him. Finding a ship full of treasures that he can sell to rich and greedy corporations seems like one way to earn a living, but he is also faced with a moral dilemma when he and his friend Pima find out that the ship is owned by a beautiful girl named Nita, who needs their help.

I am very fond of stories where ragtag people beat the odds by trying to do the right thing. This future Earth has man/dog hybrids, intense storms, and dismal living – more like surviving – conditions. Another thriller, this book packs in very memorable characters and suspenseful moments, making it a favorite among book reviewers.

Many reviewers think in terms of dystopian fiction when exploring books by Bacigalupi. The Guardian points out, however, why dystopia is popular among teens:

Teenagers don’t see dystopias as dystopias; they see them as barely fictional representations of their day-to-day lives.

I think this statement is interesting as it circumvents the idea of present reality represented in the fictional future, which is a common theme in this series. Fiction about global warming and the corruption within finds itself both in the present and in the speculative future. We have no further to glance than at our doorsteps to find rising seas, melting polar caps, fossil fuel greed and industry corruption, and a vast divide between the wealthy and poor – which are always players on the stage of Earth’s demise.

Bruno Latour describes climato-quietism as as “quietism in theology being a laid-back attitude that somehow, without doing anything much, God will take care of our salvation.” But I think a form of it exists among science-believing people as well, in that we hope that climate disruption is something that technology or someone in the future might address so we can continue our current lifestyles without too much of a worry. We’re already experiencing dystopia but cannot see it in front of us. Fiction makes it realer through intense reflection or displacement, but sometimes it still seems too far away. It takes stark fiction, like Bacigalupi’s, to hold the mirror steady.

Bacigalupi’s The Drowned Cities takes place in the Ship Breaker universe. Another young adult novel, it features characters Mahlia and Mouse in a climate-changed world with half men/half monsters, a sure sign of biotech gone wrong. (But what happens to biotech creatures without their masters? They begin to think for themselves.) The world is bleak, with drowned cities and war-torn landscapes in which survival is a desperate act. What reviewers have pointed out about this novel is its memorable grit and darkness. Even romance can be fleeting and dangerous. The Verge has a similar take on The Drowned Cities as The Guardian did on Ship BreakerThe Verge states: “nearly everything he describes could be taking place right now.”

Tool of War is the third part in the Ship Breaker trilogy – Tool being the half man/half monster we met earlier, a biotech creature left in the woods to its own survival. But the reader can also understand that Tool is a consequence of war in general. Tool has the capability for mass destruction, but left to its own conscience, it finds peace and an affinity to lead its teenage armies into doing the right thing – the only thing that will afford humanity a future at all – and that is rebuilding the drowned cities. It’s heartening to see the trilogy’s previous teenagers unite together in this finale, but in the meantime, the bad corporations are trying to neutralize Tool, so it’s not easy sailing. With characters struggling to find identity and purpose in a climate-changed world, we think that we could be them. That we could also be tools. Ultimately, we know that it’s probably best not to be someone else’s puppet but to join in the good fight.

The Water Knife (a fleshed-out novel from the short story “The Tamarisk Hunters”) is a more contemporary story set in a nearer future, in which the dwindling Colorado River pits three states – California, Arizona, and Nevada – against each other in a water war. Summoning the natural history, present, and future of place, the Los Angeles Times describes the novel:

Bacigalupi’s use of water as sacred currency evokes Frank Herbert’s Dune. The casual violence and slang may bring to mind A Clockwork Orange. The book’s nervous energy recalls William Gibson at his cyberpunk best. Its visual imagery evokes Dust Bowl Okies in the Great Depression and the catastrophic 1928 failure of the St. Francis Dam that killed 600 people and haunted its builder, Mulholland, into the grave.

The American Southwest is a region historically plagued by droughts, but climate scientists tell us:

[The] 21st century drought in the Southwest will primarily be driven by increased evaporation due to warmer global surface temperatures. Relative humidity will decrease as temperatures rise, which will lead to increased evaporative demand from soils. Enhanced evaporation due to global warming will reduce soil moisture in the Southwest by an average of 3 cm/year. By 2099, soils in the region will be 10-20% drier than they are today, which will increase the risk of drought by at least 20%.

What has been a very dry region, with droughts, is meant to get worse in the future with water wars becoming likely eventually. This makes drought (similar to deluge, in other regions) a common theme for writing fiction that relates to future Earth. But, as stated before, the way Bacigalupi world-builds and writes driven, memorable characters sticks with readers very well.

Bacigalupi’s newest novel The Tangled Lands – co-authored by Tobias Buckell – is a fantasy novel in which the use of magic in the city of Khaim causes environmental destruction in the form of brambles that begin to take over. Previously, it seems that magic has been good and useful, until, that is, it becomes toxic after a tyrant named The Jolly Mayor begins to collect the magic so that he can control everyone else with it.

The bramble begins as a sprout but grows wildly, with thorns and creeping vines, and produces a sleeping poison. The bramble kind of reminds me of the invasive Himalayan blackberry – which has been called “invasive, noxious, and beautiful” – that spreads wildly throughout the lower mainland of British Columbia. It’s hard to stop it. The story is told in a sequence of four connected tales: an alchemist trying to fight the bramble, a mother trying to find her children, a blacksmith’s family trying to build protective armor, and a family searching for their daughter. An uprising takes place as citizens realize that magic is now destroying the environment.

We might take these stories as ways to combat things that destroy our environment, and ultimately us. The Washington Post points out:

Like we do, the citizens of Khaim grapple with their complicity in the destruction of the world, even as they fight for the right reasons.

The Tangled Lands was released on February 27, 2018.

Paolo Bacigalupi is a writer who has global warming on his mind, for sure. On Facebook, he states, and I quote:

I wrote The Water Knife because I was concerned about America’s willingness to pretend that climate change wasn’t real, and wasn’t a pressing problem for us. I wrote it as a thought experiment: What happens when we try to pretend that facts don’t exist and science data isn’t real? Where does it lead? In that story, the result is that those who have been clear-eyed and planned for the future are struggling, but still hanging on, and those who pretended it wasn’t coming have lost everything. There are drought refugees, border controls between states, and an increasingly dysfunctional and fragmented United States. I added in Merry Perrys, a group of religious fundamentalists who pray for rain, because Rick Perry did just that during the Texas drought of 2011. Now he’s the Energy Secretary. And now, a climate denier is our President, and our government agencies are being asked to remove data about climate change, to not to speak about climate change, and to not acknowledge climate change. The House of Representatives is looking to cut funding to the IPCC, and Trump is looking to pull out of the Paris climate agreement – all while the planet hits record heat levels.

It’s refreshing to see authors admit their concerns and not be afraid to talk about issues. Climate disruption is a valid subject in fiction; fiction has the capacity to hold a mirror to us, enabling us to see what is there that we otherwise do not see, like a dark shadow. Great fiction acts as a conduit for channeling issues to us in story form, and thanks to authors like Paolo Bacigalupi, we are not short of this literature.

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.


Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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