Authors@Google: Paolo Bacigalupi

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 03.06.2010

moderator: Thanks everyone f-for coming to another Authors@Google SF. Today we've got
Paolo--and you know what, I'm just gonna be honest. I’m not gonna try to butcher your
last name.
[audience laughter]
moderator: But Paolo is going to be talking about The Windup Girl as long--as well as
his--his former collection of short stories. The Windup Girl was named one of the best
novels of the year by TIME Magazine, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, a number of other
prominent publications.
It was nominated for the very prestigious science fiction Hu--Hugo Award, and recently
won a Nebula Award for best novel. And what's special about that is that this is his first
novel. And I believe it was Gibson--William Gibson you said, is the only other science
fiction author who has won a--a--a Nebula for their very first novel.
So Hugos and Nebulas, very prestigious awards. But a--a special honor to get it for his first
novel. He is also a Theodore Sturgeon award-winning science fiction author and fantasy writer
from Colorado. His fiction has appeared in a number of magazines, including The Magazine
of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov's Science Fiction, a number of other publications.
His short fiction, the work before this, was collected in Pump Six and Other Stories. And
I have personally been reading The Windup Girl. I'm absolutely immersed in the disturbingly
relatable future that Paolo paints.
A semi-distant future where the fundamentals of--of society have changed much less than
we would hope, which I feel adds an undertone of--of even more haunting realism. So I' think
you're gonna enjoy it. Certainly we're gonna enjoy the talk by Paolo. Thanks.
[audience clapping]
>> And if all video conference offices can make sure to mute for the entire talk.
Paolo: Okay. Can--can people hear me okay? I can't really judge levels. I can see heads
nod or something like that [laughs]. Okay, great. This isn't actually my natural mode
to be standing in front of people.
So this is a little more—-I'm supposed to be behind a computer hiding out in a dark
room somewhere [audience laughter], not--not in front of all of you. So it's a little bit
nerve wracking, but I'm gonna try not to be crazy up in front of you.
Yeah, my name is Paolo Bacigalupi [laughs]. That's--and yeah, I live in a w—-small town
in Western Colorado. I've been writing for about 15 years. And while this is my first
novel that's sold, it's not actually my first novel.
I originally started writing when I was about 23 years old. And I was sure that I was gonna
be some wunderkind amazing writer who'd have my first novel sold by 25 and I'd be rich
and famous and all these other things.
And so I--I actually did quit my day job when I was 23 to--to sit down and write my first
novel. And I told everybody I was gonna do it, because I didn't want to back out. I was
gonna write this novel and I quit my job and I did all this research and I wrote this novel
and I got myself an agent.
And we sent it out to publishers and it was promptly rejected by everyone. And I thought,
"Well, okay. That's—-that's fine. That's--that's my first novel. I'm gonna try again here though,
'cause I think I've learned some things this time around." And so I wrote another novel,
and I sent it to my agent and he sent it out to all these publishers. And they all rejected
it again.
And-and so at that point I thought, "Well, okay. Now I've definitely learned some stuff."
And--and so I sat down and I wrote another novel. And each one of these takes me about
a year, a year-and-a-half to write. And--and so I'd written another novel. And I’m getting
halftime jobs on the side and stuff, and my wife is like being really supportive but also
like trying to believe that I'm not crazy.
[audience laughter]
Paolo: And--and I write that third novel. And--and I--I write it. I sent it to my agent.
And this one my agent actually rejects out of hand. He just says, "This is crap."
[audience laughter]
Paolo: Okay, so now I think I'm really--I--I'm learning here. I was try, fail, learn, try,
fail, learn. Okay. And so then I sit down and I go, "Okay. I can--I can do this. I'm
gonna write another novel." And-and I do.
And I write my fourth novel. And I sent it my—-to my agent, and he gets really excited.
He's like, "This I can sell." And he sends it out to all the publishers, and they all
reject it again. And so at that point I know I'm crazy. Even though my wife hasn't told
me I'm crazy, I know I'm crazy.
And-and I really can't take the--the idea of being rejected anymore. And I really can't
stand the idea of writing for a year-and-a-half to write a novel that's gonna fail anyway.
And so I started writing short fiction instead. I still liked writing, but I just--the--the--that
process of--of putting everything in and then seeing nothing come out was just--just too
So I started writing short fiction instead and--and figured, "Well, I guess writing's
gonna be a hobby. I'm not gonna be anything at all, but that's fine. And [laughs]-
[audience laughter]
Paolo: -at least I get to write. And writing makes me less crazy than when I'm not writing.
So I--I started writing short fiction. And everything sort of changed for me at that
point. The first story that I wrote after that was called The Fluted Girl and it was
selected in Science Fiction for several different years' best anthologies.
The next story that I wrote after that was called The People of Sand and Slag, and it
was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards. The story after that was The Calorie Man.
And that one won the Theodore Sturgeon Award for best science fiction short story of the
year, as well as being nominated for the Hugo Award.
And it kind of kept going like that. And so suddenly I started thinking, "Wow, maybe I'm
not crazy after all. I should write another novel [laughs]."
[audience laughter]
Paolo: And--and this time I was like, "I really have learned some things. I'm gonna write
this in a year. I know what I'm doing." And--and so I sat down and I started working. And I
started to build out this story.
And the more I worked on the story, the bigger it got. And so one year became two years,
and two years became three years. And I suddenly had this monster of a novel that oh, had gone
off in all sorts of different directions.
And when I finished it, or sort of finished it, I was--I was actually thinking, "This
book needs to die. This is bad. This is really bad, and I know how to fix it though." And
my wife is like, "No, don't touch it. You can't touch it, send it out."
And so I sent it out, and my agent took it. And--and she sent it out to publishers. And
every single one of them rejected it again-
[audience laughter]
Paolo: -except for th--this time there was a small press publisher in San Francisco called
Nightshade Books. And where there hadn't been that kind of a resource before, Nightshade
was willing to take a risk on a dark dystopic science fiction novel about crushing environmental
issues, and--and say that that was actually worthwhile to publish.
And--and I think much to all of our surprise it actually started to sell. And [laughs]
what--what was interesting to me about that is like writing science fiction almost automatically
in--in commercial sense is a bad idea. And you know that because any time you walk up
to anyone on the street and say, "Hey, I write science fiction," they say, "Step the fuck
[audience laughter]
Paolo: [Laughs]And--did I just say that on streaming? Shit. [laughs]
[audience laughter]
Paolo: And--and science fiction just isn't respected. Science fiction, when you say the
word science fiction people already look at you and say, "I don't read science fiction."
You say, "Well, but there's good stuff in science fiction. There's really interesting
ideas here in science fiction."
And--and what you find is you've got that wash of the assumptions about science fiction
are oh you write Star Trek, oh you write Star Wars, oh maybe you write Avatar, Aliens, something
like that. Or even worse it's Barbarella. And it's rocket ships and old amazing stories
babes on the covers and scantily clad. And that's sort of what science fiction means
to people.
And--and it's really weird, because to me science fiction is--is--is so much more than
that. And I'd actually like to read something from my short story collection actually, that
sort of illustrates a little bit of what I think is interesting about science fiction.
And this is from a story of mine called Pop Squad. And I'm sorry for all of you who are
eating at the moment.
[audience laughter]
Paolo: The familiar stench of unwashed bodies, cooked food, and shit washes over me as I
come through the door. Cruiser lights flicker through the blinds, sparkling in rain and
illuminating the crime scene with strobes of red and blue fire. A kitchen. A humid mess.
A chunky woman huddles in the corner, clutching closed her nightgown. Fat thighs and swaying
breasts under stained silk. Squad goons crowding her, pushing her around, making her sit, making
her cower. Another woman, young-looking, pretty but pregnant and black-haired, is slumped
against the opposite wall, her blouse spackled with spaghetti remains. Screams from the next
room: kids.
I squeeze my fingers over my nose and breathe through my mouth, fighting off nausea as Pentle
wanders in, holstering his Grange. He sees me and tosses me a nosecap. I break it and
snort lavender until the stink slides off. Children come scampering in with Pentle, a
brood of three tangling around his knees--the screamers from the other room. They gallop
around the kitchen and disappear again, screaming still, into the living room where data sparkles
like fairy dust on the wallscreens and provides what is likely their only connection to the
outside world.
"That's everyone," Pentle says. He's got a long skinny face and a sour small mouth that
always points south. Weights seem to hang off his cheeks. Fat caterpillar brows droop
over his eyes. He surveys the kitchen, mor--mouth corners dragging lower. It's always depressing
to come into these scenes. "Well, they were all inside when we broke down the door."
I nod absently as I shake monsoon water from my hat. "Great, thanks." Liquid beads scatter
on the floor, joining puddles of wet from the pop squad along with the maggot debris
of the spaghetti dinner. I put my hat back on. Water still manages to drip off the brim
and slip under my collar, a slick rivulet of discomfort. Someone closes the door to
the outside. The shit smell--smell thickens, eggy and humid. The nosecap barely holds it
off. Old peas and bits of cereal crunch under my feet. They squish with the spaghetti, the
geologic glares of past feedings. The kitchen hasn't been self-cleaned in years.
The older woman coughs and pulls her nightgown tighter around her cellulite and I wonder,
as I always do when I come into situations like this, what made her choose this furtive
nasty life of rotting garbage and brief illicit forays into daylight. The pregnant girl seems
to have slipped even further into herself since I arrived. She just stares into space.
You'd have to touch her pulse to know that she's alive. It amazes me that women end up
like this, seduced so far down into gutter life that they arrive here, fugitives from
everyone who would have kept them and held them and loved them and let them see the world
The children run in from the living room again, playing chase: a blond, no more than five;
another, younger and with brown braids, topless and in makeshift diapers, less than three;
and a knee-high toddler boy, scrap diaper bunched around his little muscle thighs, wearing
a T-shirt stained with tomato sauce that says "Who's the Cutest?" The T-shirt would be an
antique if it wasn't stained.
"You need anything else?" Pentle asks. He wrinkles his nose as new reek wafts from the
direction of the kids.
"You get photos for the prosecutor?"
"Got 'em." Pentle holds out a digicam and thumbs through the images of the ladies and
three--and the three children, all of them staring out from the screen like little smeared
dolls. "Do you want me to take 'em in now?"
I look over the women. The kids have run out again. From the other room, their howls echo
as they chase around. Their shrieks are piercing. Even from a distance they hurt my head. "Yeah,
I'll deal with the kids."
Pentle gets the women up off the floor and shuffles out the door, leaving me standing
alone in the middle of the kitchen. It's all so familiar: a typical floor plan from Builders
United. Custom undercab lighting, a black mirror tile on the floors, clever self-clean
nozzles hidden behind deco trim lines. It's all so much like the stuff Alice and I have
that I can almost forget where I am. It's a negative image of our apartment's kitchen:
light vs. dark, clean vs. dirty, quiet vs. loud. The same floor plan, everything in it
the same, and yet nothing is. It's archeological. I can look at the layers of gunk and grime
and noise and see what must have underlain it before, when these people worried about
color coordinating and classy appliances.
I opened the fridge (smudgefree nickel, how practical, hmm). Ours contains pineapples
and avocados and endive and corn and coffee and Brazil nuts from Angel Spire's hanging
gardens. This one holds a shelf cluttered with ground mycoprotein bars and wadded piles
of nutreshen--nutrition supplement sacs like the kind they hand out at government reju
clinics. Other than a bag of slimy lettuce, there isn't anything unprocessed in the fridge
at all. No vegetables except in powder jars, ditto for fruit. A stack of self-warming dinner
bins for fried rice and laap and spaghetti just like the one still lying on the kitchen
table in a puddle of its own sauce, and that's it.
I close the fridge and straighten. Here's somethin' here in the mess and the screaming
in the next room and the reek of the one kid's poopy pants, but I'm stumped as to what it
is. They could have lived up in the light in the air. And instead, they hid in the dark
under wet jungle canopy and turned pale and gave up their lives.
The kids raced back in, chasing each other all in a train, laughing and shrieking. They
stop and look around, surprised, maybe that their moms have disappeared. The littlest
one has a stuffed dinosaur by the nose. It's got a long green neck and a fat body. A brontosaurus,
I think, with big cartoony eyes and black felt lashes. It's funny about the dinosaur,
because they've been gone so long, but here one is, showing up as a stuffed toy. And then
it's funny again, because when you think about it, a dinosaur toy is really extinct twice.
"Sorry kids, mommy's gone."
I pull out my Grange. Their heads kick back in successive jerks, bang bang bang down the
line, holes appearing on their foreheads like paint and their brains spattering out the
back. Their bodies flip and skid on the black mirror floor. They land in jumbled piles of
misaligned limbs. For a second, gunpowder burn makes the stench bearable.
Paolo: All right. So the thing I like about science fiction is the opportunity to take
what looks normal and then to twist it, to--to take an idea and stretch it out into some
unreasonable place where you think that the world is going to be safe and stable, and
then to rip the floor out from underneath you and drop you into something else.
Ideally that process is a bit like stretching a rubber band. You pull somebody out into
a different world, and then you let the rubber band snap. And when people come back to this
world they're going to look at our pl--our place now, the present, with a different lens
as well. And that's really the thing that excites me about science fiction.
And it's a tool in science fiction that you really don't get to use in another genre or
any other style. It's what science fiction does best and it's what I love. So despite
the fact that science fiction is sort of scorned, this is the place where I get to play with
the tools that give me an opportunity to talk about the world in some really interesting
The--the--the thing I'm sort of looking for is that opportunity to help people see what
they thought was normal is abnormal. And the--the best personal description I have of this is
a time when I was a--a--I was a student in China. I'd gone over to China to study Chinese.
I'd done an immersion program.
And while I was over there I spent, I guess about six months. And I came back to the states.
And I was at my college and I was sitting out in the--in the quad, in the park. And
there's trees and everything. And it was really beautiful. And it was like the first time
I'd been around greenery in a long time, it was really beautiful.
Except for that there were all these rats running around in the--in the quad. And--and
I kept looking around at all these rats. And I saw them and there's a rat and there's a
rat and there's another rat. And nobody else seems to care at all that there are these
rats running everywhere. And then I suddenly realized they were squirrels.
[audience laughter]
Paolo: [laughs]And--and I was--and then I was like they're squirrels. Okay, they're
squirrels. And I am still thinking, "Do people really let these rodents run around [audience
laughter], really? Why do they feel okay with this? Why don't they kill them? Why don't
they--I mean, this has to be bad."
And it was that moment where the place I'd been for a while didn't have squirrels running
around, and so they just disappeared as a--as a natural element of what we consider our
sort of pseudo natural urban surroundings.
And so coming back into that suddenly that was alien. And--and so normal became alien
and--and that's the moment when you can actually start looking at the--our customs and habits
and saying, "Well, why do we do this? Why do we live this way? Why do we have this kind
of a world?" And all things can be up for grabs and all things can be questioned. I
think that's really interesting.
The other thing that I'm really interested in, in science fiction, is the process of
extrapolation. And for me the--the quote that sort of sums that up is William Gibson's comment
that "the future is here, it's just not evenly distributed", which I love.
And being in some place like Google where you guys are actively sitting around in your
computers building the next ver--iteration of the future that's going to be evenly distributed,
or more evenly distributed, is really interesting to me.
You guys are seeing nodes of future that could come into being. And--and in science fiction
that--that idea is really powerful. And so I’m really interested in looking at--at
little data nodes and sort of saying, "Well, if this is the future that's becoming more
evenly distributed what does that more evenly distributed look like?"
And so that applies to all sorts of things. I think about like sort of cell phone networks
in Japan and what cell phone culture looks like in Japan, and does that become more evenly
distributed? You look at something like the iPad coming out and you say, "Oh, is this
gonna be more evenly distributed?"
But there are other kinds of interesting aspects of that too, because you can look at something
like the country of Afghanistan and say, "Oh, here's a place where the future hasn't been
evenly distributed." You know, women's rights are severely curtailed, life spans are short.
There's all sorts of parts of our future that theoretically could be more evenly distributed
over there.
The thing about that is that it also demands that we sort of understand what the narrative
is. That we understand that--which data points are creating the dominant narrative, and that
we understand where the story lines are going.
If I'm George Bush and I say that democracy is an ascendant storyline for the last 250
years, then applying it in Iraq makes a lot of sense because I know the storyline. This
is democracy. Democracy goes everywhere. But if we look at that from another lens, if I
go back and I look at something like--like Afghanistan or like Bangladesh. Bangladesh
is really interesting to me.
If I look at a place where there's resource scarcity and I'm looking at a country that's
dealing with resource scarcity, then I start to wonder well what does resource scarcity
look? And if resource scarcity is the story, it's going to become more evenly distributed.
What does that tell us also about other kinds of cultural imports? Do we become more and
more set in our ways as there's more scarcity? Do we fight up against each other more?
Is there some point where Republicans Dem--and Democrats take to the streets and just shoot
each other because we just stopped getting along at some point and we want to take the
territory? Those are the kinds of things that I sort of spin out in my head and I ask, "Well,
what story is gonna be the dominant one?"
When I look at some place like Bangladesh--I--I was just recently became enamored of ship
breaking yards, the Chittagong Ship-breaking Yards. And if you've never seen these, these
are amazing.
There's a photographer named Edward Burtynsky who's taken some fantastic photos of this.
And there's actually a film called Manufactured Landscapes which documents some of this. And-and
you see a landscape of--of where our stuff goes to die.
But what you also see is that Bangladesh isn't just--just the place where we're dumping these
things because they've got crummy labor laws, and crummy environmental controls. The other
thing is, is that for--for Bangladesh ships are a resource. They aren't recycling those
ships, they're mining them.
And that's really interesting. I think, "Oh, there's something that tells me about resource
scarcity." Is here our--our manufactured objects are resources. So what does that look like
down the road? If resources are scarce, what do we do with our resources and how do we
treat them? And what does Bangladesh have to tell me about what would an America look
like with a resource scarcity problem?
So there are things like that that I'm really interested in. But again it just kind of keeps
bunk--back--keeps coming back to that question of what data points we like to look at. And
so in science fiction I'm sort of a--I'm sort of an outlier, because not many people are
particularly interested in writing in sort of environmental issues. But that doesn't
really make me right, it just marks me sort of one line of thought.
And so what you'll see is that science fiction will touch on anything. Robert Sawyer's gonna
write about a different set of storylines and data points than Charlie Strauss is gonna
write a different set of data sets--data points than Neal Stephenson. You're going to see
that divergence of what we look at.
And we're all sort of feeling the elephant blind. I'm grabbing onto the leg and claiming
that this is really a tree that we're looking at in the future. And somebody else is grabbing
the trunk and claiming it's a snake. And good luck, we're trying to figure that out.
But one of the things that's really interesting to me about how we go about looking at those
trends is that--well, okay. [Heavy sigh]I guess when I--I tend to look at a certain
set of data points that don't seem to show up in the news a lot. I guess that's the thing.
And--and a lot of those data points tend to be about distributed sort of topics, or distributed
I'm really interested in why is this small, furry mouse in the Sierras going extinct?
And it's not gonna get a lot of news and so it's not a big data point.
And I’m trying to figure out whether or not that data is actually maybe the most telling
piece of information about where we're going. More telling than North Korea and South Korea
getting into a huge fight, more important than whether or not the iPhone OS or Android
OS is gonna win, more--more telling than any of those things.
And--but it's interesting that we--we sort of have a hard time looking at those. I'm
gonna read another section here. This is from a short story called The Tamarisk Hunter.
Let's see--yeah, if I can find it right--sorry. All right.
[Heavy sigh]
A big tamarisk can suck 73,000 gallons of river water a year. For $2.88 a day, plus
water bounty, Lolo rips tamarisk all winter long.
Ten years ago, it was a good living. Back then, tamarisk shoulder up--shouldered up
against ever riverbank in the Colorado River Basin, along with cottonwoods, Russian olives,
and elms. Ten years ago, towns like Grand Junction and Moab though they could still
squeeze life from a river.
Lolo stands on the edge of a canyon, Maggie the camel his only companion. He stares down
into the deeps. It's an hour's scramble to the bottom. He ties Maggie to a juniper and
starts down, boot-skiing a gully. A few blades of green grass sprout neon around him, piercing
juniper--tagged snow clods.
In the later winter, there's just a beginning surge of water down in the deeps; the ice
is off the river edges. Up high, the mountains still wear their ragged mantles of snow. Lolo
smears through mud and hits a channel of scree, sliding and scattering rocks.
His jugs of tamarisk poison gurgle and slosh on his back. His shovel and rockbar snag on
occasional junipers as he skids by. It'll be a long hike out. But then, that's what
makes this patch so perfect. It's a long way down, and the riverbanks are largely hidden.
It's a living; where other people have dried out and blown away, he has remained: a tamarisk
hunter, a water tick, a stubborn bit of weed. Everyone else has blown off the land as surely
as dandelion seeds, set free to fly south or east.
Or most of all north to where watersheds sometimes still run deep and where even if there's no
more lush ferns or deep fish--deep cold fish runs, at least there's still water for people.
Eventually, Lolo reaches the canyon bottom. Down in the cold shadows, his breath steams.
He pulls out a digital camera and starts shooting his proof. The Bureau of Reclamation has gotten
uptight about proof. They want different angles on the offending tamarisk, they want each
one photographed before and after, the whole press--process documented, GPS'd and uploaded
directly by the camera. And they want it done on-site. And then they still sometimes come
out to spot check before they calibrate his headgate for water bounty.
But all their due diligence can't protect them from the likes of Lolo. Lolo has found
the secret to eternal life as a tamarisk hunter. Unknown to the Interior Department and its
BuRec subsidiary, he's been seeding new patches of tamarisk, encouraging visher--vigorous
brushy groves in previously cleared areas.
He has hauled and planted healthy root balls up and down the river system in strategically
hidden and inaccessible corridors, all in a bid for security against the swarms of other
tamarisk hunters that scour these same tributaries. Lolo is crafty. Stands like this one, a quarter-mile
long and thick with salt-laden tamarisk are his insurance policy.
[Music plays]
Documentation finished, he unshafts a folding saw [laughs], along with his rockbar and shovel,
and sets his poison jugs on the dead salt bank. He starts cutting, slicing into the
roots of the tamarisk, pausing every thirty seconds to spread Garlon 4 on the cuts, poisoning
the tamarisk wounds faster than they can heal. But some of the best tamarisk, the most vigorous,
he uproots and sets aside for later use.
$2.88 a day, plus water bounty.
It takes Maggie's b--rolling bleating camel stride a week to make it back to Lolo's homestead.
They follow the river, occasionally climbing above it onto cold mesas or wandering off
into the open desert in a bid to avoid the skeleton sprawl of emptied towns.
Guardie choppers buzz up and down the river like swarms of angry yellowjackets, hunting
for porto-pumpers and wildcat diversions. They rush overhead in a wash of beaten air
and gleaming National Guard logos.
Lolo remembers a time when the guardies traded potshots with people down on the riverbanks,
tracer-fire and machine-gun chatter echoing in the canyons. He remembers the glorious
hiss and arc of a Stinger missile as it flashed across redrock desert and blue sky and burned
a chopper where it hovered.
But that's long in the past. Now, guardie patrols skim up the river unmolested. Lolo
tops another mesa and stares down at the familiar landscape of an eviscerated town, its curving
streets and subdivision cul-de-sacs all sitting silent in the sun.
At the very edge of the empty town, one-acre ranchettes and snazzy five-thousand-square-foot
houses with dead-stick trees and dust-hill landscaping fringe a brown tumbleweed golf
course. The sandtraps don't even show anymore.
When California put its first calls on the river, no one really worried. A couple towns
went begging for water. Some idiot newcomers with bad water rights stopped grazing their
horses, and that was it. A few years later, people started showering real fast. And a
few after that, they showered once a week.
And then people started using the buckets. By then, everyone had stopped joking about
how "hot" it was. It didn't really matter how "hot" it was. The problem wasn't lack
of water or an excess of heat, not really. The problem was that 4.4 million acre-feet
of water were supposed to go down the river to California. There was water; they just
couldn't touch it. They were supposed to stand there like dumb
monkeys and watch it flow on by.
The voice catches him by surprise. Maggie startles and groans and lunges for the mesa
edge before Lolo can rein her around. The camel's great padded feet scuffle dust and
Lolo flails for his shotgun where it nestles in a scabbard at the camel's side. He forces
Maggie to turn, shotgun half-drawn, barely holding onto his seat and swearing.
A familiar face, tucked amongst the juniper tangle. "Goddamnit!" Lolo lets the shotgun
drop back into its scabbard. "Jesus Christ, Travis. You scared the hell out of me."
Travis grins. He emerges from amongst the juniper's silver bark rags, one hand on his
gray fedora, the other on the reins as he guides his mule out of the trees. "Surprised?"
"I coulda shot you!"
"Oh, don't be so jittery. There's no one out here 'cept us water ticks."
"Yeah, that's what I thought the last time I went shopping down there. I had a whole
set of new dishes for Annie and I broke them all when I ran into an ultralight parked right
in the middle of the main drag."
"Meth flyers?"
"Beats the hell out of me. I didn't stick around to ask."
"Shit. I'll bet they were as surprised as you were."
"They almost killed me."
"Well, I guess they didn't."
Lolo shakes his head and swears again, this time without anger. Despite the ambush, he's
happy to run into Travis. It's lonely country, and Lolo's been out long enough to notice
the silence of talking to Maggie.
They trade ritual sips of water from their canteens and make camp together. They swap
stories about BuRec and avoid discussing where they've been ripping tamarisk and enjoy the
view of the empty town far below, with its serpentine streets and quiet houses and shining
untouched river.
It isn't until the sun is setting and they've finished roasting a magpie that Lolo finally
asks the question that's been on his mind ever since Travis's sun-baked face came out
of the tangle. It goes against etiquette, but he can't help himself. He picks magpie
out of his teeth and says, "I thought you were workin' downriver."
Travis glances sidelong at Lolo. And in that one suspicious uncertain look, Lolo sees that
Travis has hit a lean patch. He's not smart like Lolo. He hasn't been reseeding. He's
got no insurance. He hasn't been thinkin' about the head about all the competition,
and what the tamarisk endgame looks like, and now he's feelin' the pinch.
Lolo feels a twinge of pity. He likes Travis. A part of him even wants to tell Travis the
secret, but he stifles the urge. The stakes are too high. Water crimes are serious now,
so serious Lolo hasn't even told his wife, Annie, for fear of what she'll say. Like of
the most shameful crimes, water theft is a private business, and at the scale Lolo works,
forced labor on the Straw is the best punishment he can hope for.
Travis gets his hackles down over Lolos invasion of his privacy and says, "I had a couple of
cows I was runnin' up here, but I lost 'em. I think something got 'em."
"It's a long way to graze cows."
"Yeah, well, down my way even the sagebrush is dead. Big Daddy Drought's doin' a real
number on my patch." He pinches his lip, thoughtful. "I wish I could find those cows."
"Oh, they probably went down to the river."
Travis sighs. "Well, then the guardies probably got 'em."
"Probably shot 'em from a chopper and roasted 'em."
They both spit at the word.
[audience laughter]
The sun continues to sink. Shadows fall across the town's silent structures. Rooptop-rooftops
gleam ruby, a red cluster decorating the blue river necklace.
"You think there's any stands worth pullin' down there?" Travis asks.
"Well, you can go down and look. But I think I got it all last year. And someone had already
been there through before me, so I doubt much is comin' up."
"Shit. Well, maybe I'll go shopping. Might as well get somethin' out of this trip."
"There sure isn't anyone to stop ya'."
As if to emphasize the fact, the thud-thwap of a guardie chopper breaks the evening silence.
The black-fly dot of its movement barely shows against the darkening sky. Soon it's outta
sight and trick--cricket chirps swallow the last evidence of its passing.
Travis sighs. "Remember when the guardies said they'd keep out the looters? I saw them
on TV with all their choppers and Humvees and them all saying they were gonna protect
everything until the situation improved." He laughs again. "You remember that? All of
them drivin' up and down the streets?"
"I remember."
"Sometimes I wonder if we shouldn't have fought 'em more."
"Annie was at Lake Havasu City when they fought there. You saw what happened." Lolo shivers.
"Anyway, there's not much to fight for once they blow up your water treatment plant. If
nothin's comin' outta your faucet we might as--you might as well move on."
"Yeah. Well sometimes I think you still gotta fight, even if it's just for pride." Travis
gestures at the town below, a shadow movement. "I remember when all that land down there
was sellin' like hotcakes and they were buildin' shit as fast as they could to ship in the
lumber. Shoppin' malls and parking lots and subdivisions, anywhere you could scrape a
flat spot."
"Yeah. Well, we weren't callin' it Big Daddy Drought, back then."
"Forty-five thousand people. And none of us had a clue. And I was a real estate agent."
Travis laughs, a self-mocking sound that ends quickly. It sounds too much like self-pity
for Lolo's taste. They're quiet again, looking down at the town wreckage.
"I think I might be headin' north," Travis says finally.
Lolo glances over, surprised. Again he has the urge to let Travis in on his secret, but
he stifles it. "And do what?"
"I dunno, pick fruit maybe. Maybe somethin' else. Anyway, there's water up there."
Lolo points down at the river. "There's water."
"Not for us." Travis pauses. "I-I got to level with you, Lolo. I went down to the Straw."
For a second, Lolo is confused by the non sequitur. The statement is too outrageous.
And yet Travis's face is serious. "The Straw? No kiddin'? All the way down there?"
"All the way there." He shrugs defensively. "I wasn't finding any tamarisk, anyway. And
it didn't actually take that long. It's a lot closer than it used to be. A week out
to the train tracks, and then I hopped a coal train, and rode it right to the interstate,
and then I hitched."
"What's it like out there?"
"Empty. A trucker told me that California and the Interior Department drew up all these
plans to decide which cities they'd turn off when." He looks at Lolo significantly. "That
was after Lake Havasu. They figured they had to do it slow. Worked out some kind of formula:
how many cities, how many people they could evaporate at a time without ta--making too
much unrest. Got advice from the Chinese, from when they were shuttin' down all their
old communist factories. Anyway, it looks like they're pretty much done with it. There's
nothin' movin' out there except highway trucks and coal trains and a couple truck stops."
"And you saw the Straw?"
"Oh Sure, I saw it. Out toward the border. Big old mother. So big you couldn't climb
on top of it, flopped out on the desert like a damn silver snake. All the way to California."
He spits reflexively.
"They're spraying with concrete to keep water from seeping into the ground and they've got
some kind of carbon-fiber stuff over this top to stop the evaporation. And the river,
it just disappears inside. Nothin' but an empty canyon below, bone-dry. And choppers
and Humvees everywhere, like a goddamn hornets' nest. They wouldn't let me get any closer
than a half a mile on account of the eco-crazies trying to blow it up. They weren't nice about
it either."
"Well, what did you expect?"
"I dunno, it sure depressed me, though. They work us out here and toss us a little water
bounty and then all that water next year goes right down that big old pipe. Some Californian's
probably fillin' his swimmin' pool with last year's water bounty right now."
Cricket-song pulses in the darkness. Off in the distance, a pack of coyotes starts yipping.
The two of them are quiet for a while. Finally, Lolo chucks his friend on the shoda--shoulder.
"Ah hell Travis, it's probably for the best. A desert's a stupid place to put a river,
So, that sort of future doesn't have to exist. It's based on an extrapolation of the way
that we currently run water rights. And some pretty immutable laws about how water is organized.
Phoenix has lower water rights than California, and that's just the way it's going to be.
Theoretically with water rights when there's scarcity what happens is the least important
holder of the water right will lose their right so that the next most important holder
can get all of their right. And so there's a cascade of people getting--having their
water turned off. And you see that happening in major drought times.
The thing that's interesting is that Lake Powell and Lake Mead are having a hard time
refilling right now. The Colorado River Basin is having a hard time refilling itself right
now, even as our population's increased. We are moving towards scarcity. And how we decide
to adapt to that is sort of up for grabs.
The thing that's interesting is that that hasn't stopped Phoenix from growing. It hasn't
stopped any of us from growing, and it hasn't stopped us from--from making the assumption
that we can sort of duck around our essential resource inputs.
And so what I hope--what--what's--what I hope is that I can write a story that gives a person
a visceral experience of something that's actually fairly abstract. We've known for
a long time that the Lake Powell isn't refilling. In fact, it's lower every year. But what does
that mean? It's just abstract. It doesn't really do anything.
And so I want to run out an extrapolation that sort of says, well this is kind of what
it looks like. And so that's--that's sort of my attempt to--to use science fiction to
talk about some specific issues. And--and to look at a certain set of data points that
aren't really in the news particularly.
Oh, what's the water level of Lake Pow--Lake Powell? Really, who gives a shit? And maybe
we should, though. And so that's sort of what I'm interested in.
One of the other sort of interesting data points that's just kind of come up is the
Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf, which isn't really interesting to me as an environmental
tragedy. It's, okay we've got another oil rig that blew up and whatever.
What's really interesting to me actually is how we as a society react to that data point.
And so--because there are things we can extrapolate from it. And--and the--the thing that really
strikes me about Deepwater Horizon, that oil rig, is that it was an ultra-deepwater drill
rig, which means that it could drill in depths up to 10,000 feet of water.
And it actually set the record for drilling by drilling down 36,000 feet into the earth.
It's--it can drill down six miles. And it can do it in deep water. And you don't build
a drill rig like that. You don't create that sort of technological gee whiz thing. I mean,
this is high tech. And you don't do that unless all the easy stuff is gone.
That's what Deepwater Horizon--the existence of Deepwater Horizon as an object tells us
that we're running out of cheap easy access oil. We're running out of our cheapest, easiest
energy source. That's what's most interesting about Deepwater Horizon. It's not that it
blew up. It's that it exists at all.
And--and so that's sort of--when I look at that, that's--there's a data point there that's
saying something really interesting that we aren't really grappling with in the news.
Again, because of it's sort of distributed kind of intangible nature. What is--what is
a loss of cheap energy look like?
The other thing that's sort of interesting to me about Deepwater Horizon is how we interact
with that explosion in terms of we make fun of it a lot. I've actually been watching the
Twitter feeds where--there's a couple of awesome Twitter feeds out there. One of which is--let's
see, let me find it 'cause it-BP Global PR is the Twitter feed, which is hilarious.
I mean--and this is where they sort of pretend to be the-the CEOs of BP ad make all sorts
of snide comments like, "We think the ocean looks slimmer in bap--in black," [audience
laughter]and things like that. And it's--it's awesome. It's a--a lotta--a lot of fun. And
there's a tag BP Cares, which is a lot of fun too.
The thing is, is we poke fun at them and we scorn them. But--but basically BP is just
a dog that we sent out to fetch. And now we're blaming it because it didn't get the bone.
I mean basically you send out a dog, you say, "Go fetch that. Go get that bone." And it
comes back and you say, "Oh good dog, here's a treat."
And that's what we do with BP. We say, "Go get us some oil. Come back, we'll give you
some money." And, so they were just doing what we asked them to do. The fact that they're
failures at it, well you know that's--that's when we start scorning them. But we would
have been perfectly happy tossing them little treats as long as they kept doing it anyway.
We were trying to send them out.
And that's another thing that's interesting is we don’t really engage very well with
what our supply chains are. Where--where--how far we reach. We like our--our--our sort of
consumer objects to not have a history.
And right now when we look at Deepwater Horizon, suddenly the gas in my tank has a history.
And what do I do? I actually don't actually say, "Well, I was sticking gas in my tank,"
which is asking BP to go hunt there. I actually just say, "Oh, you suck over there." And that's
really interesting to me, because I think we've do that in a lot with our consumer objects.
And it's another one of those sort of hidden data points about how we engage with our world.
If I look at something like the iPad, it's--it's a historyless object. It--it lacks any--any
history. I don’t know whether there's lithium or nickel or copper in there. I don't which
mines that might have come out of.
I don't know anything about the object. It's supposed to come to me pristine. It's like
virgin birth sort of. And--and--and I'm supposed to love it just for itself. And then it's
gonna disappear, and it's not gonna have any--any afterlife either 'cause I'm not gonna know
about that either.
And our sort of like--the--I feel like when I see something like the--the Deepwater Horizon
explosion, for just this brief moment that we've sort of lifted the curtain and we're
looking at the full extent of our--our supply chain. Where drilling is happening, what happens,
people die doing it. And that's actually true all the time, it's just not a big enough news
story for us to really care.
The last thing that's really interesting to me about Deepwater Horizon is how we characterize
it as an environmental t--catastrophe. And--and this actually goes back to how we look at--at
data points that might be important to us.
And we look at Deepwater Horizon and we say, "Oh my God, all that oil is washing up on
all of these wetlands." But the reality is we were just gonna burn it out our tailpipes
anyway. So we're just pissed off that we didn't get to do the polluting.
[audience laughter]
Like, I mean that's it. That's it, they got to it first. I mean, so they dump it all over
there. "Goddamn it, I wanted to burn it and send it into the atmosphere. That's what I
wanted to do. I wanted to use that for global warming instead of just poisoning some little
wetland over there. I had a big plan for this."
[audience laughter]
So, at that moment you--there's this--there's this thing where you have this weird sort
of response to environmental catastrophe. We respond really well to point source catastrophes
like this. We can see it, we can respond to it, we understand it, we can engage with it.
We actually probably will eventually plug that well [laughs].
[audience laughter]
But we aren't gonna stick anything in our tailpipes, not really. And I know that 'cause
I just got on a plane to fly out to talk to all of you guys. So like [laughs]-
[audience laughter]
-there's the hypocrisy right there. And so hating this kind of pollution while sort of
engaging in a daily set of behaviors that are fundamentally destructive, that's a really
interesting human capacity that we have.
And--and that's something that I'm really interested in my fiction, because I sort of
feel like again, where this spice--space where the--the catastrophes that face us are distributed.
They're not tangible. They're long term. And they're really unclear. And there's a lot
of uncertainties in them.
And so I hope that when I write science fiction and sort of look at drought or look at how
chemicals might disrupt our endocrine systems and turn us all into stupid people. Or how
agricultural companies with their IP and their-and terminator genes might actually really change
the way that we interact with food.
But those are ideas that we can spin out and kind of look at and play with. And maybe interact
with in a more tangible, visceral way than we would otherwise.
It's really--that's--and--and so like there's this point where I--I just sort of have to
say, "Yes, I want my characters to be interesting. Yes I want my stories to be fascinating and
gripping. And yes, I actually am this evangelist banging on my pulpit trying to get people
to pay attention to some things that are pretty interesting and fundamental. And that we mostly
spend our time not looking at. And that we prefer not to."
So anyway, that's pretty much sort of my shtick [laughs]. So do you have any questions about
any of this?
moderator: Actually, if you can use the mic, it's for our YouTube audience, that'd be great.
male in audience #1: So, it was--it was actually very interesting what you were saying about
Deep Horizon. And I was sort of like trying to think a--as an analogy, kind of Google
and kind of what we do. And one of the things I was thinking about is Deep Horizon it's
not just that it's the cheapest--or the--all the cheap oil, sources of oil, are used up
so we're moving to that.
It's that even though it's expensive, it really does it at scale. Right? You can get a lot
of oil out of that thing, which you may not be able to do in cheaper sources. And I wanted
to--I wondered if you had thought in kind of coming here, if you had thought about kind
of Google and kind of what our--what our role is. How we did--not in oil obviously, but
with information and etcetera.
Paolo: Yeah, I've thought about it. I actually--I--I actually have these really complicated sort
of feelings about--about big companies generally. Because they--they sort of seem to be both
promise and peril all wrapped in one.
But yeah, with Google the things that stand out to me. I mean, on one level you're doing
some really interesting things with sustainability. On the other hand, Google exists as a commerce
engine basically. It exists off of advertising. It lubricates consumption.
And if there's anything that we understand about sort of our impacts on the world, lubricating
consumption is probably bad. And so there's a certain number of things that you can do
because you're well financed by my bad buying habits.
So it's sort of like you're standing in the middle of that stream of consumption and plucking
out a certain number of fish. But--but at the same time, that stream of consumption
and--and enabling that stream of consumption is--is probably leading us in unsustainable
And so I'm not sure if you get to a point where you can get enough benefit from the
stream of consumption that you can actually sort of offset the damage of the extreme of
consumption. So I'm not sure really how you balance that. That's sort of my quick and
dirty take.
male in audience #2: Hi, and thank you for coming. One thought I had about the--just
what you had described is the stories that interest you. That--it seems like another
common factor of them is that they're very slow. They take years to happen, instead of
happening over the course of a day or a week or so forth.
And this puts in mind an idea that's been floating around very recently, which is about
how people of--in their 40s and 50s think of urban centers as--as very high crime, because
in the 70s when they were young, they were very high crime. But in fact violent crime
is way lower than it's been since then, yet we still have these sort of memories of that.
And so we still treat them as that. And we helicopter our kids and so forth and so on.
And so it's like is there a sort of--like our resource consumption habits. Do they also
sort of follow from our--our childhood experiences of the world? And what other habits do we
have that can't move forward or get locked into a--into a mindset from decades past and
are hard to move forward. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Paolo: Yeah, actually I think we--we--especially in the United States, I sort of feel like
we--we actually have--we start out with a really high level comfort level of consumption.
I’m seeing that in my kid right now, where he's got a certain number of toys in his room.
The fact that he has his own room is actually really interesting too. I mean there's--there's
like these--the things that we take for granted as just the assumed level of an adequate prosperity.
Not--not crazy prosperity, but an adequate prosperity are so ingrained in us at this
I assume that a decent living is having a three bedroom home and a small plot of land
in Paonia, Colorado. I mean, which is exurb and sprawl and a whole bunch of other things.
I--I can just go off on that too.
But--but--but basically, I mean when you grow up saying that three--three bedrooms is the
norm, then that means that scaling back is a really tough thing, because we do perceive
loss in that. And--and when we grow up with those assumptions is that's our human right
essentially. That's really interesting.
And I spent a bunch of time in China. My wife's family comes from India actually, and so we
spent a bunch of time over there. And seeing the--the difference of assumption about what
prosperity looks like and--is really interesting, because prosperity is really this moving target.
It's--it's actually a--it's actually not--not this absolute thing will make you happy. If
I just have three bedrooms, that's always the happiness thing, or if I have one bedroom
that's the happiness thing.
I mean, there's a family that I used to stay with in China. And they had a--a two bedroom
apartment that was about the size of my living room in my current house. And we were all
packed in there together, but nobody was sitting around saying, "Oh, life is so hard." They
were actually hanging out with each other and being convivial.
And--and so there was--there was a weird moment when I went back to our very empty house in
the United States and thought, "Huh, what do we do with all this space?" And then my--my
stepmother at the time was really pissed off that I was even at the house at all. She felt
like I was just crowding her too much.
We could be on different levels of the house and totally different parts. I’m like, "You
can't even see, hear or smell me. Like really, I'm so far away. This is like," but she--I
was still invading her gigantic bubble that she had for space. And I'm thinking my God,
I was--I was shoulder--to--shoulder with people and they weren't bothered by me. Like, and
here this is like--so yeah, so those habits, yeah.
And it makes it hard for us to have a rational conversation about what--what actual cons--what
our needs really are. Our needs versus our wants, and being able to separate those out.
And probably that's really connected to sustainability. So-
>> Well, again thank you for coming. And despite all the talk about need versus want, you should
want to buy this book. It's a--it's an excellent read.
[audience laughter]
Paulo: Yeah, so kill more trees for me.
moderator: Yeah [laughs], and I think you'll all enjoy it. Paolo Bacigalupi, thank you
very much for coming to Google.
Paolo: Thank you.
[audience clapping]