On Sunday, Paolo Bacigalupi, author of the Printz-winning Ship Breaker (2010), stopped by the Booklist booth at ALA’s Midwinter Meeting to talk about his new book, The Water Knife. Our conversation has been edited for length.
The Water Knife is firmly dystopian, though I’ve heard you prefer the term accidental futures. Could you say a little about why you like that phrase better than the word dystopian?
When I think about things like dystopian literature versus the kind of stuff I write, the thing that stands out to me is that dystopias are technically deliberately crafted places. You’ve got something like Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s about a human environment that’s deliberately built in a certain way with a certain set of values to control the society. Most of the futures I write are more like the unintended consequences of people having a certain set of values. I sort of think of them as accidental futures, futures where we had no foresight.
When I was growing up I thought of myself as a science fiction writer. Flat out—I write science fiction. And science fiction asks the question, “If this goes on, what will the world look like, what happens next?” And you see that with The Windup Girl (2009), with GMO foods—what if big agriculture corporations control food? What happens? How does that look? The same way with The Water Knife—what happens with climate change and a massive drought on the Colorado River? What are the unintended consequences?
But you know, I’m still sort of forming this in my head. I was reading The Black Swan (2007), by Nassim Taleb, which is all about unexpected events that change everything basically. Typically a “black swan event” is where everybody thinks they understand the risks and then something happens to make them reevaluate everything. The data they were looking at in the historical context was wrong and we get surprised by a new piece of data.
A great example Taleb gives in the book to illustrate this is a turkey on Thanksgiving Day. Imagine a turkey at the turkey farm who, every day, goes and gets fed by people, and, every day, he goes and he gets more food. He thinks, “Well, I got fed yesterday and the day before, and the day before, so clearly tomorrow I will also get fed,” and then—oops! On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, he gets a new piece of data and that data is completely outside of the initial set of data that he was using to anticipate his future. According to that turkey’s history, nothing bad would happen to him, and then it turns out he’s misevaluated the world entirely.
That’s the way I think about the world. The Water Knife really, directly applies. I remember doing some research for it. I was at a water conference in Colorado in 2012—it was actually a drought conference.
You went specifically to do research?
I crashed the conference. I happened to be in Denver and was like, “Hey look at that, I think I’d better walk in and see if anyone notices me.” Nobody did, it was great.
But I had a chance to actually ask one of the reps from Denver Water, “Here we are in the middle of this drought—how many droughts like this one can Denver sustain?” And he said, “Well, I think we can probably run about five years. We’ll have to go on water restrictions and a bunch of different consequences but we think we can last it out five years.” And I said, “So what are the chances we could have a five-year drought?” And he said, “Well, it’s never happened in the past.” And you think, THERE! That’s the moment! That’s the wedge that you’re going to drive a story into. So going back to the black swan and turkey thing, just because you’ve never had anything different from a feeding before, doesn’t mean you aren’t going to get your head chopped off on Wednesday.
We as a society will survive based on
whether or not we are able to interpret
the data around us correctly and then
behave as though that data matters.
I think one of the other things that really influenced me before writing The Water Knife is that when I was in Texas in 2011, they were having a big drought down there. But the thing that really stood out to me was that Rick Perry at that time, who was a legitimate presidential candidate, was praying for rain. He’s holding these big prayer circle things, statewide days of prayer. And you think, here we are, in this situation, which is so dire, and this is how he moves towards a solution set? He moves toward magical thinking? This was actually the moment when I knew I was going to write The Water Knife. We as a society will survive based on whether or not we are able to interpret the data around us correctly and then behave as though that data matters.
Have you heard the term CliFi?
I’ve heard the phrase, yes.
Is it helpful or silly to pigeonhole literature that deals with climate change in this way?
It’s a weird thing. Does the term CliFi make this more meaningful and accessible for somebody to pick up? Or does that mean it’s actually, “Oh, I don’t believe in climate fiction, therefore, I’m not going to pick up this text.” Honestly, I think there’s something a little silly about saying that there’s genre of literature called CliFi. I think there’s reality-based literature or there’s denialist literature. I think those are the only two things and any even contemporary novel, if it doesn’t have some understanding of the fact that it’s describing a changing world, it’s kind of in denial, it’s kind of a historical fiction. Everything about our contemporary world is becoming more and more destabilized and you want to see that infuse all stories because that’s describing our genuine world. So labeling something CliFi sort of hides it in a way. I just engage with the world. This is the world.
In Ship Breaker and in The Water Knife, you have this fascination with characters who are almost profiting from these disasters. In that way, there’s a new moral landscape for the world. What do you find interesting about these characters who are sympathetic but profiteering?
I have a huge amount of empathy for people. What we do is we take the circumstances that we have and we make the best of those circumstances. That doesn’t necessarily make us look pretty but we are survivors. This shows up in a lot of my books. You wake up today and this is your world. What are you going to do with it? And everyone, whether you’re a rich person or a poor person, everybody is trying to adapt to a set of situations.
The people who position themselves to take advantage of change are going to be around. They’re planning on the future already, existing in the future while the rest of us are still trying to use a past model as the model for existence.
Is there a major difference between writing for YA and adult?
When I wrote The Drowned Cities (2012), which is also YA, that was my most intense and horrifying book, far more than either The Windup Girl or The Water Knife. For me, the biggest difference between writing for adults versus writing YA or middle grade is really what I think I want to say to that audience.
With Zombie Baseball Beatdown (2013), I wanted to have a conversation with kids about how we define things like what an American is, and who belongs and who doesn’t. My son is half Indian and he’s growing up in Western Colorado, which is pretty white and pretty homogenous, and there was a moment when he had a baseball cap that we had just given him for his birthday. He was really excited when he got it and he was going to take it to school when suddenly he stopped and looked kind of sad. He took the hat off and hung it up. And my wife and I said, “Don’t you like that hat?” And he said, Well, I’m afraid that all the other kids are going to laugh at me.” And we said, “Well, why?” And his answer was, “Well, only kids with blond hair wear the hats like this.” And we had this moment where we were like, “Holy shit!” We feel like he’s a well-accepted, well-loved kid and yet he’s also already aware of differences. He’s drawing his own connections about what the rules of the game are. For my son, genuinely, I want to communicate, “You belong, this is your space.”
What’s been your relationship with libraries, either as a kid or going forward?
It’s interesting, my relationship with libraries really started with my YA writing. And it was because librarians really championed Ship Breaker. Honestly, that I have a career is due to libraries. It really changed a lot of things to win the Printz, to have that kind of support where I have really dedicated readers who are then getting my story out into kids’ hands. Finding the kids that need that book. Finding the kids that will engage with reading finally because they got the right book. It’s this hugely powerful thing and I feel this huge gratitude for having people who are so dedicated to the cause of civilization.