Paolo Bacigalupi's dystopian near-future cyberpunk / hard sci-fi
October 1, 2013 12:18 PM   Subscribe

Paolo Bacigalupi writes hard sci-fi set in the near future, inspired in part by the stories from his science journalist friends and the imminent future of cyberpunk. Some of his works have been classified as "biopunk," due to his focus on bio-engineered products that run rampant, with involvement for battling mega-corporations that (try to) run everything in a world where oil is expensive and human labor is cheap. His first published novel, The Windup Girl (Google books preview), won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2010. He has published three novels since then, all categorized as Young Adult fiction, but Bacigalupi sees his only adaptations for a younger audience to be to shift the focus to pacing, and less sexuality, but otherwise similar to his "adult" works. He has also written a number of short stories (plus a few non-fiction pieces) over the years, many of which can be found online.

Before we get into all that, a bit on Bacigalupi's background: though his last name, which can be pronounced as Bunch o’galoshes or BATCH-i-ga-LOOP-ee, and apparently means "kiss of the wolf," may sound very Italian, he was born in Western Colorado and raised on a fifteen-acre farm, then went on to major in Chinese at Oberlin College, all of which set the stage for his future writing.

Short Fiction
1999 "Pocketful of Dharma"
2003 "The Fluted Girl"
2004 "The People of Sand and Slag"
2004 "The Pasho" (Google books preview)
2005 "The Calorie Man" (PDF from Night Shade Books, who published The Windup Girl)
2006 "The Tamarisk Hunter"
2006 "Pop Squad" (Google books preview)
2006 "Yellow Card Man"
2007 "Softer" (excerpt; Google books preview)
2007 "Small Offerings"
2008 "Pump Six" (Amazon preview)
2008 "The Gambler"
2010 "The Alchemist" (Amazon preview; also available as a limited edition hard copy; paired with "The Executioness" by Tobias Buckell)

Non-Fiction
1999 "The loneliest man in China"
2002-08 various articles and pieces for High Country News

The short fiction pieces were all (except Small Offerings and The Gambler) collected in Pump Six by Night Shade Books. If you're trying to keep track of future publications, you can see Bacigalupi's Windup Stories site (WARNING: currently features unusual canned animal products in an effort to promote Zombie Baseball Beatdown, a zombie/commercial food industry book for kids in grades 4-6), or check his ISFDB page.
posted by filthy light thief (88 comments total) 106 users marked this as a favorite
 
I picked up Pump Six in a Humble Books Bundle a while ago and it's been staring at me from my "to read" pile since then. The Windup Girl was so much fun. I'll have to track down his other novels too.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:21 PM on October 1, 2013


I really liked "Pump Six". "The People of Sand and Slag" especially floored me. I read it a few years ago and it had been a long time since new SF had made such an impact.
posted by bongo_x at 12:23 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Cannot over-recommend Windup Girl.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 12:25 PM on October 1, 2013 [7 favorites]


The Fluted Girl ... man, that one has a just haunting kind of perverse imagination displayed by the characters and the author. It is like, the nightmare conclusion of the "objectification" of human beings, literally.
posted by rustcrumb at 12:25 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Fartpunk.
posted by blue t-shirt at 12:28 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Great post! Not sure if this fun fact is buried in a link somewhere, but I'll toss it out there: Bacigalupi says he learned a lot of the craft of writing from just one book--Robert Ray's The Weekend Novelist. But I think he also mentioned some number of unpublished novels that preceded his first sale, so I'd guess that's where he really learned.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:30 PM on October 1, 2013 [7 favorites]


Pop Squad is proper great - very influenced by Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality stories, perhaps, but that's no bad thing. His prose is spot-on. The Windup Girl is very skilfully plotted but I found some scenes with the eponymous character a bit problematic. They seemed to fetishize Emiko's abuse. Of course they should feel icky, but the rape scenes smacked of titillation in places and for that reason I've found it hard to recommend the novel to friends. But without a doubt, Bacigalupi is a major talent.
posted by RokkitNite at 12:34 PM on October 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


My wife loved Windup Girl. She's started two or three books since then, but none of them have really excited her like that book did.

Thanks for posting this! I've forwarded it to her.
posted by Pecinpah at 12:37 PM on October 1, 2013


I loved the Windup Girl, but did notice, as others have, that there was no real explanation or even a hint about what happened to all the solar power, windmills, tidal power, etc. Seems like genetically engineered elephants would be a poor choice of power generator given these options?

(Lovely post, too.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:38 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have a collection of his (including Pump Six) and those are some seriously dark futures he imagines. I wanted to curl up and hide.
posted by jepler at 12:41 PM on October 1, 2013


I think there's some vague references to lack of sufficient rare earth elements and collapse of required tech/industrial infrastructure which explains solar a little. No idea about wind.
posted by Wretch729 at 12:43 PM on October 1, 2013


I know what you mean RedOrGreen, that was certainly something that prevented me diving in as much as I wanted until I just said this is the world he's created, even if it doesn't make sense to me.

Certain parts was crazy sexual however. I really wasn't expecting it. It felt weird to be reading such things on the train surrounded by 100 people.
posted by Carillon at 12:53 PM on October 1, 2013


Despite its being marketed as YA fiction, I liked Ship Breaker a lot. It has a) a very scary and plausible near-future dystopia; and b) the most terrifying, and only, scenes of drowning in oil that I've ever read.
posted by scratch at 12:54 PM on October 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Excellent work. Great writer.
posted by Artw at 12:56 PM on October 1, 2013


Did no one else feel really uncomfortable about the oriental exocitisation and play towards stereotypes in Windup Girl?
posted by redbeard at 12:56 PM on October 1, 2013 [9 favorites]


redbeard: Requires That You Hate surges past uncomfortable and into articulate rages on that account.
posted by foxfirefey at 1:02 PM on October 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


How Cyberpunk Saved Sci-Fi

Yyyeah, okay, cyberpunk was important. But the same rough time period, just a couple of years later maybe, was also the renaissance of space opera.

I loved the Windup Girl, but did notice, as others have, that there was no real explanation or even a hint about what happened to all the solar power, windmills, tidal power, etc.

This was a lot of why I bounced off TWG partway through... even if it never gets stated, you have to think that it's basically a new religious taboo. Otherwise I have to think it would make more sense to just gather up what you feed the elephants and burn it than it would to mostly use it to make more elephant meat.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:02 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Cannot over-recommend Windup Girl.

No.

It's shitty, orientalist (as is Bacigalupi himself), and far from hard science.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:05 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wind up girl gave me literal nightmares so I've actually avoided his work cause i don't want to be creeped the fuck out.
posted by The Whelk at 1:06 PM on October 1, 2013



Cannot over-recommend Windup Girl.

No.


See also this review.
"The book was ambivalent for me by this time, but the introduction of the titular character, Emiko the Windup Girl, was horrendous, cringe-inducing, and it would have been really nice to have read a review beforehand which gave me a TRIGGER WARNING. Made in Japan (really? Japan? Ya don’t say), unsuited for this equatorial climate and sexually abused for her exotic Other-ness, Emiko’s arc is supposed to give us some indepth introspection into the state of a character who must overcome everything that is instinctual in herself, built into her genes, in order to gain mastery of herself.

If this concept wasn’t so real, so close to the reality of so many women all over the world, it would still be yawn-worthy, as the idea of a woman overcoming her upbringing, eventually snapping and reacting violently against her sexual abuse is extremely overdone and not just an android thing. As a woman, I am huffy that this cheap route was taken, and not just a little frustrated that once again, a female titular character is subjected to the sexual abuse narrative as the Worst Thing To Happen To Her. As an Asian, I am infuriated that Bacigalupi chose Thailand, already reputed for its sex tourism industry, to portray the abuse of a female character. Realism aside, do we assume that this happens nowhere else? Would the story have been different if it had happened in an European country? But no, it has to be Thailand, because shit like this is normal in Thailand, amrite?"
posted by redbeard at 1:12 PM on October 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


How Cyberpunk Saved Sci-Fi

This is actually a good example of why Bacigalupi is a bad writer. Cyberpunk didn't save science fiction (ugh "sci-fi" ugh ugh), but made it safe again for white men, after the seventies saw an influx of feminist, explicitely leftist and writers of colour into science fiction. Cyberpunk had a few good writers (Pat Cadigan, Melissa Scott (one of the few to actually examine what the politics of a hacker underground could really be like other than tired punk versus suit posturing), Sterling of course, Gibson (sometimes)) but a lot of it was just old cliches dressed up with a few hip computer cliches and leather. That Bacigalupi admires cyberpunk but didn't notice how reactionary it was or that science fiction really didn't need saving, shows how blinkered he is.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:17 PM on October 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


I skipped the Wind Up Girl, because I don't read books about female sex bots and/or women who get raped/sexually degraded, even if they get revenge in the end.
posted by nooneyouknow at 1:17 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Cyberpunk didn't save science fiction (ugh "sci-fi" ugh ugh), but made it safe again for white men, after the seventies saw an influx of feminist, explicitely leftist and writers of colour into science fiction.

Reading list? I tried reading Octavia Butler (Patternmaster and the series centered around group sex with aliens) but I found her authorial presence to be creepy, in a Heinlein sort of way, but in an orthogonal direction.

I thought TWG straddled the line between exploitative and critical wrt asian sexbots... which is probably unacceptable depending on where you are coming from. But, I'm not sure Oryx and Crake was all that different, except for the extremity of the revenge.
posted by ennui.bz at 1:26 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


MartinWisse and redbeard, those critiques of the novel's orientalism are dead-on, and it made me uncomfortable even while reading the book. The mushy science I don't care quite as much about--I thought he painted an arrestingly plausible near future. In any case, I may have to reevaluate recommending the book to people; thanks for the cold water.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 1:27 PM on October 1, 2013


Yeah, Emiko's character was.. problematic. Unfortunately so. It diminished my ability to really enjoy the hot mess of the story. But I kind of figured that Bacigalupis, as a Caucasian author writing in the voice of four characters from three different Asian descents, was basically daring the PC police to come down on him.
posted by dobie at 1:28 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I quite liked "Ship Breaker" and the "The Windup Girl". Thought the energy-depleted future was very well done. But yes, "The Windup Girl" is definitely not on the list of Fiction Politically Correct Enough For Metafilter, which I think is kept on a postage stamp somewhere...
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:29 PM on October 1, 2013 [7 favorites]


Reading list?

Not necessarily seventies science fiction, but the sadly ended World SF blog has a lot of interviews, reviews and fiction by authors from all over the world, while the SF Mistressworks blog (disclaimer: done some reviews for it) looks at classic science fiction written by women, while Daughters of Prometheus looks at modern female sf writers.

My own recommendations: Samuel Delany (of course), Lavie Tidhar, Melissa Scott, Joanna Russ, Elizabeth Bear (sf only), J. R. Pournelle, Justina Robson, Pat Cadigan, Liz Williams, Nicola Griffith, Naola Hopkinson, Laura Beukes, M. J. Locke, China Mieville, Ken MacLeod, S. P. Somtow (if you want a proper Thai sf writer) for people writing from a leftist, feminist, or non-western point of view.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:57 PM on October 1, 2013 [8 favorites]


Cyberpunk didn't save science fiction (ugh "sci-fi" ugh ugh), but made it safe again for white men, after the seventies saw an influx of feminist, explicitely leftist and writers of colour into science fiction.

I wonder if I can find any more out about this idea, it's a juicy one.
posted by emjaybee at 2:00 PM on October 1, 2013


I was very excited to read Windup Girl; I had trouble with it, too. The world building was very interesting to me (would like access to his notes/more information). The characters and their stories not as much, the windup girl character especially so. As people above have said, there were problems, and they probably cannot be/should not be dismissed as "not politically correct enough"...

That being said, I believe that PB is not a bad writer and is a pretty good thinker/communicator of/about the broader socio-enviro-political-etc issues in his chosen speculative fiction worlds.
posted by J0 at 2:00 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


I wonder if I can find any more out about this idea, it's a juicy one

Jeanne Gomoll’s open letter to Joanna Russ, which talks about the rewriting of seventies sf history by Bruce Sterling in his introduction to Gibson's Burning Chrome.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:16 PM on October 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


It doesn't hold up for me, regardless of whatever Sterling might have pronounced. I can't see how Emma Bull and Pat Cadigan could be classed instruments of the patriarchy, to name two of many.

And, IMO, Tiptree was a stronger influence on Gibson than Delany (or anyone else).
posted by bonehead at 2:24 PM on October 1, 2013


Did not like Wind-Up Girl (my thoughts here). Fun worldbuilding for a bit, but then I realized that all his inventions are just alternate versions of stuff we already have - agencies, technologies, etc. The plot and all the characters could have been transplanted into our world with minimal modifications.

I appreciate that it was just one in a whole series, but it turned me off of his whole approach. I'll keep this post in mind though for a few friends who really liked it.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 2:25 PM on October 1, 2013


I loved the Windup Girl, but did notice, as others have, that there was no real explanation or even a hint about what happened to all the solar power, windmills, tidal power, etc.

I read it as a collapse of a civilization that didn't retool for a post-petroleum world before the oil reserves ran low enough to where a collapse was inevitable. Most of that world reverted to pre-industrial age ways of life (so animals are the primary form of mechanical power as an example in the book).

It's plausible. Even if we're getting 20% of our electric power from solar and wind, that's not going to be enough to sustain itself when the oil runs out - first we need vehicles, infrastructure and manufacturing that doesn't rely on oil, and we need enough energy for mining, smelting, and running semiconductor fabs. If that doesn't happen the existing wind and solar infrastructure will reach the end of its existing lifetime and not be able to be replaced.
posted by MillMan at 2:27 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


and far from hard science

Since when is "far from hard science" a criticism? Virtually all SF is far from hard science.

HARD SF:

1) Hal Clement
2) There is no 2.
posted by Justinian at 2:30 PM on October 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


BlackLeotardFront: " I realized that all his inventions are just alternate versions of stuff we already have - agencies, technologies, etc. The plot and all the characters could have been transplanted into our world with minimal modifications."

I feel like that was sort of the point in a lot of ways, though. The few times we do see petrol vehicles, they amaze or terrify people because of their speed and power. Kinkspring scooters and contraptions are a pale comparison to these relics.
posted by boo_radley at 2:35 PM on October 1, 2013


Can someone please describe for me the difference between a white dude writing about a person of color in a different culture and... exoticalism? Whatever the generic term for orientalism-but-for-other-cultures is.

For example, is Alastair Reynolds' Blue Remembered Earth good or bad in this respect?
posted by Justinian at 2:36 PM on October 1, 2013


Also Maureen McHugh's work, particularly China Mountain Zhang.
posted by Justinian at 2:37 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm with MillMan: I read the use of animals as being a way to retrofit non-petroleum power into existing infrastructure. You can't power a skyscraper with solar panels, even if you could conceivably power an entire city that way; but if you put the solar panels outside the city you have no way to bring the power in to that particular building without it getting diverted along the way. So you bring the solar power into the city in the form of biomass, which you feed to the treadmill-walking animals in the basement that power the lifts.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:44 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


MartinWisse: It's shitty, orientalist (as is Bacigalupi himself), and far from hard science.

Bacigalupis studied (majored in?) Chinese in college, then lived there for a number of years, which doesn't defend his piece for Salon, but could put it in perspective. To be honest, from my brief stay in Russia, and looking to many folks in the US, I could see that a lot of people would like outsiders to say that their country is great. Who are you to come here and call my country a shithole? Especially in a casual conversation in a restaurant.

As for the "hardness" of the science, I see his work as being more based in a feasible reality than far-future/other worlds sci-fi with amazing rockets and blue-skinned aliens. Are there flaws in his science and predictions? Sure, but scientific accuracy in fiction could be seen as a gradient, not a yes/no option.

His writing could be better, and if the Windup Girl character in that book is unsettling but you generally enjoy the rest of his dystopian future, you might still enjoy his other works.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:46 PM on October 1, 2013


In any case, it's hugely better than Blackout/All Clear which was a joint winner the year following Bacigalupi. Worst joint winner ever.
posted by Justinian at 2:48 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]




Well great Justinian. I just finished TWG and now was moving on to Blackout/All Clear with decent though not high expectations. Should I still read them? They're sitting on my bookshelf crying out for an answer!
posted by Carillon at 2:51 PM on October 1, 2013


Sure, why not try them? Some people clearly enjoyed them for no apparent reason which I can fathom.
posted by Justinian at 2:52 PM on October 1, 2013


Well cause I have other things stacking up too, so if they aren't worth it I'd rather not waste precious reading time. Plus I find it hard to put down a book once started no matter how drab.
posted by Carillon at 2:56 PM on October 1, 2013


I don't know what's on your to be read pile so I can't say. But I will randomly recommend Joe Abercrombie's Red Country instead! (If you've read his other stuff 'cause otherwise it won't make as much sense.) I am so helpful.
posted by Justinian at 2:58 PM on October 1, 2013


MartinWisse and redbeard, those critiques of the novel's orientalism are dead-on...

I don't know. The one written by the Malayasian-Chinese woman seemed like she was blindsided by the fact that the Malayasian-Chinese featured prominently in the story and she wanted more of that. She didn't seem to recognize The Wind-Up Girls future history of Malayasian as, basically, a retelling of what happened to the "Communists" (actually ethnic Chinese) in Indonesia.

The "orientalism" critique seems to come down to really just having a white man write about an asian woman's story... and I get that there are huge problems with that but putting it all under an -ist or -ism doesn't really explicate what's weak about Bacigalupi's writing. I think there is more going on, right and wrong in his asian characters than a simple label.

Assignment: compare and contrast The Wind-Up Girl, Oryx and Crake, and Cloud Atlas wrt Feminism, Anti-Feminism, orientalism and "the other." (they all feature asian "sexbots"/prostitutes: the figure of the "sexbot" is indistinguishable from the asian prostitute trope)
posted by ennui.bz at 2:58 PM on October 1, 2013


It seems to me that if you don't want the big majority of SF protagonists to be straight white males (and that's often brought up as a criticism of SF) you've got to have straight white males writing about non-straight non-white non-males.

Also, Scott Lynch's Republic of Thieves is out in a few days so I will recommend that, too, Carillon! Is your name a reference to bells or to Jennifer Roberson's books, or neither?
posted by Justinian at 3:01 PM on October 1, 2013


Also Maureen McHugh's work, particularly China Mountain Zhang.

While that is a nice book, honestly, there was a lot more orientalism in it's "daoist architecture," (and in a painful Carradinian Kung-Fu way) than I see in Bacigalupi...
posted by ennui.bz at 3:01 PM on October 1, 2013


Assignment: compare and contrast The Wind-Up Girl, Oryx and Crake, and Cloud Atlas wrt Feminism, Anti-Feminism, orientalism and "the other." (they all feature asian "sexbots"/prostitutes: the figure of the "sexbot" is indistinguishable from the asian prostitute trope)

To note: from the 2010 Rain Taxi interview, Bacigalupi realizes his education is lacking when faced with a question about posthumanism in The People of Sand and Slag. This is not intended to defend or define his writing, but to provide some more context.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:04 PM on October 1, 2013


It seems to me that if you don't want the big majority of SF protagonists to be straight white males (and that's often brought up as a criticism of SF) you've got to have straight white males writing about non-straight non-white non-males.

until they lambasted for having the temerity to do so.
posted by Dr. Twist at 3:05 PM on October 1, 2013


Don't try to get me in trouble! That's not what I said!
posted by Justinian at 3:06 PM on October 1, 2013


The bells by way of a random hotel in the Bourne identity. I needed a username 10 years ago and was reading the book. Essentially darts at a list of names, though now I do love the bells as well.

I will check out both, thanks for the recommendations.
posted by Carillon at 3:06 PM on October 1, 2013


They're both fantasy rather than SF. If you're not into fantasy they won't be your cup of tea. Unfortunately I have found a dearth of good recent SF. I could use more spaceships in my life.
posted by Justinian at 3:08 PM on October 1, 2013


It seems to me that if you don't want the big majority of SF protagonists to be straight white males (and that's often brought up as a criticism of SF) you've got to have straight white males writing about non-straight non-white non-males.

Or how about publishing and championing some ladies and queers and people of color as writers instead?

This conversation reminds me of this article and also my way-more-than puzzled reaction to what felt like kinda pretty racist elements of Ian MacDonald's Planesrunner. I still feel like I'm the only person on earth who saw them. Most people just praised him for writing an Indian kid. Haven't read Baciagalupi, though.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:11 PM on October 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


I had huge problems with the title character of TWG as well-- mainly because it felt like Bacigalupi was trying to titillate the reader with all that repulsive sexual exploitation. If that's what he means by "sexuality" than I'm glad he refrains from it in his YA work, because yecch.

But to call Bacigalupi "orientalist" is not only a cheap shot (what, a white American can't write stories about any other country now?) it's the exact opposite of what he seemed to be trying to accomplish. As I was reading TWG, it seemed to me like he was making a bona fide effort to portray post-collapse Thailand primarily from the perspective of the global South. There was no Mighty Whitey swooping in to save the day, on the contrary, the locals were solving their own problems and being damn creative about it, amid chaos caused largely by the excesses of the global North.

That feeling was only reinforced when I read The Drowned Cities, where he took a story that you might expect to be located in some war-torn equatorial nation and set it right in the (former) U. S. of A. The gist: this shit can go down anywhere, there's nothing special about America that a degree or two of global warming can't utterly destroy, and we're all in it together, like it or not.

Orientalist? Sorry, no.
posted by otherthings_ at 3:11 PM on October 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


MillMan: I read it as a collapse of a civilization that didn't retool for a post-petroleum world before the oil reserves ran low enough to where a collapse was inevitable. Most of that world reverted to pre-industrial age ways of life (so animals are the primary form of mechanical power as an example in the book).

What, so they couldn't "retool" to use the already extremely well established solar and wind technologies, but they could create bioengineered animals and invent and machine springs that *store enough energy to launch into orbit"? Yeah, no. It's nonsensical worldbuilding.

Joe in Australia: So you bring the solar power into the city in the form of biomass, which you feed to the treadmill-walking animals in the basement that power the lifts.

There's an established way to use "biomass" to produce energy: you burn it. Not the incredibly baroque and wasteful method of feeding it to animals, who shit out most of it, use a great deal of the rest just to keep their bodies going, and only produce a tiny amount of it as useful energy for a generator.
posted by tavella at 3:12 PM on October 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


A good comparison for Bacigalupis vis a vis orientalism are Ian Mcdonald's books, particularly River of Gods. Again, I think The Wind-Up Girl comes up better on the orientalism scale.

Honestly, I think that critique is in the "circular firing squad" tendency... it's easier to criticize people closer to you rather than farther away.
posted by ennui.bz at 3:15 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Or how about publishing and championing some ladies and queers and people of color as writers instead?

Or, you know, both? Do we really want people only to write about their own little sliver of the world?
posted by Justinian at 3:16 PM on October 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Or, you know, both? Do we really want people only to write about their own little sliver of the world?

No, but publishing disproportionately favors the narratives of white straight males, which is fucked up. We're never going to get more than the study abroad picture of international diversity unless we start actually listening to the stories that non-US natives have to tell.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:19 PM on October 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


"The People of Sand and Slag" especially floored me.

I'd just like to 2nd the above sentiment; it's a great little story about a bleak, polluted future with humans adapting in some pretty strange ways. And then they find a dog. It feels like classic Heinlein- or 70s-era scifi but doesn't seem dated at all. If folks are looking for a quick entry to Bacigalupi's work, starting there might be good.
posted by mediareport at 3:21 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


No, but publishing disproportionately favors the narratives of white straight males, which is fucked up.

Women are heavily represented in the Hugo/Nebula ballots and make up most of genre sales, so I don't think this is valid. White I might buy. White males, no. That doesn't mean that women aren't treated badly in sexist ways a lot but in terms of pure numbers and sales they are clearly doing well.
posted by Justinian at 3:27 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, they're definitely underrepresented in "best of" anthologies and the like. That one is true.
posted by Justinian at 3:28 PM on October 1, 2013


Oh, they're definitely underrepresented in "best of" anthologies and the like. That one is true.

Underrepresented in certain genre mags, too. Generally, and anecdotally, it seems to me that women have an easier time getting published and garnering an audience in certain corners of genre literature (urban fantasy vs. literary fantasy or sci-fi) than others.

Anyway, you were the one who mentioned the need for having males, specifically, write non-males. And while they should, because writers should write both within and outside their experience, it's far from the only way or even the easiest or most sensible way to bring novels with female protagonists to the forefront. One is to focus on (publishing, talking about, nominating) works by female writers.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:32 PM on October 1, 2013


Yes, as I said I agree that we should both promote the works of female writers and encourage people to write about folks who don't look and act exactly like themselves.
posted by Justinian at 3:35 PM on October 1, 2013


Anyway, I'm still quite confused as to what constitutes "orientalism" vs "writing about someone in a different culture who doesn't look like you" but I've been posting a lot in this thread so I will let it go.
posted by Justinian at 3:38 PM on October 1, 2013


Yeah, no. It's nonsensical worldbuilding.

Sometimes I enjoy fiction.
posted by MillMan at 3:44 PM on October 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Bacigalupi realizes his education is lacking when faced with a question about posthumanism in The People of Sand and Slag.

Well, to be fair, that's quite a doozy of an interview question:

AV: Christy Tidwell wrote an article called “The Problem of Materiality in Paolo Bacigalupi’s ‘The People of Sand and Slag,’” which focuses on the meaning of posthumanism. She concludes by saying: “A truly ethical posthuman future would, as Sherryl Vint has argued, be an embodied posthumanism and it would also be a posthumanism that is post-Humanist and post-Cartesian, a posthumanism that neither defines humanity in opposition to nonhuman nature and the environment nor defines nonhuman nature and the environment in terms of the human. Bacigalupi presents a strong argument for precisely this by revealing what happens in the absence of such an ethical and embodied posthumanism.” Do you agree with this assessment? Does your story have a moral premise in light of an amoral future with a lack of ethics?
posted by mediareport at 3:46 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Anyway, I'm still quite confused as to what constitutes "orientalism" vs "writing about someone in a different culture who doesn't look like you" but I've been posting a lot in this thread so I will let it go.

A large part of it boils down to history and power dynamics. There's a history of Americans and Brits co-opting foreign narratives (and resources, and land) and the audience's assumption is often that a white western speaker can speak authoritatively about any culture, even though their account of that culture is still filtered through the lens of their experiences (for example, accounts of foreign food markets being filled with "exotic" smells even when the speaker in question is raised within the culture is a commonly-cited lapse). Meanwhile, when a Chinese-American author like Bill Cheng writes about Southern blacks, it's assumed that he can't speak to their experiences, despite sharing an American heritage. He's expected to write what he knows and only what he knows, which is assumed to be, narrowly, the life of a Chinese-American. But white Coloradans get the benefit of the doubt about life in other nations.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:51 PM on October 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Carillon: I really like Connie Willis, and I sort-of liked Blackout/All Clear. They're part of her Oxford History Department Invented Time Travel series with the dial turned up to 11: lots of characters stumbling around in confusion due to time shock, illness, or poor preparation (usually all of those at once) with events that inexorably move towards catastrophe. And then Dunworthy, blinking over his spectacles owlishly, says something poignant that shows that he knew what was happening all along, but didn't say anything because (a) It Was a Moment of Personal Growth For You; and (b) It Had To Happen That Way.

My take on them is that she works best at short-story or novella length, and these are two big, thick volumes that could probably have been turned into a medium-sized novel at no cost in plot.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:59 PM on October 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anyway, I'm still quite confused as to what constitutes "orientalism" vs "writing about someone in a different culture who doesn't look like you" but I've been posting a lot in this thread so I will let it go.

I think it lies in if you are trying to actually realistically represent the "other" culture or if you are relying on Lazy Asian Stereotypes 23, 56, and 132. I haven't' read the book, but Asian reviewers seem to think PB was doing the latter.
posted by nooneyouknow at 4:02 PM on October 1, 2013


Sure, why not try them?

Mostly because they're like 1200 pages combined.

Anyway, TWG fell flat for me. I just... don't remember it much at all. The world never came into focus.

While I'm ragging on Hugo/Nebula winners, I couldn't stand Among Others. It's just not a very good novel. If you want a first person coming-of-age novel in that vein, read How I Live Now which deserves every prize ever, has more magic on one page than the former has in its entirety despite not technically being fantasy at all.
posted by BungaDunga at 4:03 PM on October 1, 2013


Responding to ennui.bz:

Assignment: compare and contrast The Wind-Up Girl, Oryx and Crake, and Cloud Atlas wrt Feminism, Anti-Feminism, orientalism and "the other." (they all feature asian "sexbots"/prostitutes: the figure of the "sexbot" is indistinguishable from the asian prostitute trope)

I'd be interested to see how Charlie Stross's Saturn's Children fairs in this comparison. Is the sexbot still a problem when it exists in the absence of the humans that built it?
posted by chromecow at 4:03 PM on October 1, 2013


Meanwhile, when a Chinese-American author like Bill Cheng writes about Southern blacks, it's assumed that he can't speak to their experiences, despite sharing an American heritage. He's expected to write what he knows and only what he knows, which is assumed to be, narrowly, the life of a Chinese-American. But white Coloradans get the benefit of the doubt about life in other nations.

I don't doubt that this double standard is a problem, but it reminded me of this great interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, where he faced a similar sentiment expressed for a nobler (though ultimately wrong) reason - that because white culture is so dominant, being non-white means you are the one left with the duty to focus on your heritage, because only you can. I like to hope that at least some of this double standard of writing your own non-white background is coming from that same well-intentioned place. That's not quite as ugly.

"The black community cannot afford the luxury of someone with your intellect to spend it on that subject."
posted by anonymisc at 4:32 PM on October 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Not to stray too far from the topic, but I too have Connie Willis' Blackout/All Clear on my To Read pile. And I really didn't enjoy the Doomsday Book in the first place, although everyone says To Say Nothing of the Dog (also on shelf) is fun. Sigh.

I liked PB's short stories (Pump Six) quite a bit too.
posted by RedOrGreen at 4:33 PM on October 1, 2013


Oh thank you thank you for this post, I'm soo excited to go through it, having absolutely loved The Windup Girl.
posted by odinsdream at 4:46 PM on October 1, 2013


I just finished TWG and now was moving on to Blackout/All Clear with decent though not high expectations. Should I still read them?

Personally I brought Blackout and enjoyed it enough to purchase and fully read All Clear. You should read them!

However, as it's about historians time-travelling to the blitz it doesn't have much in the way of speculative future technologies and their consequences what with most of the action being set in the past. Also there's no space travel, parallel universes, aliens, ray guns, nanomachines, radical redefinitions of what human society looks like etc.

I guess what I'm saying is it's an enjoyable pair of books if you want books about the blitz, but a bit light on the sci-fi.
posted by Mike1024 at 4:48 PM on October 1, 2013


It's shitty, orientalist (as is Bacigalupi himself), and far from hard science.

Count me another one who's a little confused about your definition of "orientalism," especially as you dismissed Aliette de Bodard, who is half Vietnamese, with the same label.
posted by restless_nomad at 4:55 PM on October 1, 2013


Nice post - thanks! I really enjoyed the Windup Girl, too. Read it around the same time as I read Diamond Age, which paired nicely.

I'm a little hesitant about the YA titles - how do they compare?
posted by Otherwise at 5:26 PM on October 1, 2013


I'm a little hesitant about the YA titles - how do they compare?

They're generally worth reading... if bleak. But they are short, seem rushed and not fully fleshed out. I'm not sure anyone is compensated enough to actually think things through on paper, which makes criticism a case of diminishing returns.
posted by ennui.bz at 5:57 PM on October 1, 2013


Willis relies too much on English teacozy tropes, most of the time. I like her, but she tends to overcute things by a lot and is a bit conservative as a thinker. However, Doomsday Book had some great bits, and a kind of claustrophobic crammed narrative that made it feel real and dreamlike at the same time. Her time travelers are confused and waylaid by unexpected problems in the ways you want them to be, and the ending is bleak and satisfying at the same time.

I find it hard to read a lot of the grimmer stuff like Bacigalupi; I couldn't finish People of Sand and Slag because I got depressed, although the premise was amazing, and I feel the same about similar stories by him and others. I don't know if this reflects my weakness of character or just the fact that there's so much grimness in the world right now that speculating about just how much worse it could get is not a game I want to play.

I do feel curiosity about the writers (and you fans) who do want to dwell on this, though. What is it about dystopias that attracts you instead of repels you? Is is that you find them so incredible that they don't bring you down because they can never happen? Is it that you're comforted that someone else has had the same dark thoughts as you and it's a kind of therapy to air them out? Or something else?
posted by emjaybee at 8:01 PM on October 1, 2013


sandettie light vessel automatic: "Cannot over-recommend Windup Girl."

Seconded, thirded, forthed...

Nthed...
posted by Samizdata at 8:07 PM on October 1, 2013


Can someone please describe for me the difference between a white dude writing about a person of color in a different culture and... exoticalism? Whatever the generic term for orientalism-but-for-other-cultures is.

Well, are the people of colour they write about stereotypes or wholly rounded characters? Are the settings familiar cliches (mysterious China, incrutable Japan, broken down, starving Africa); is it a country of hats (honour is important to all Japanese)?

On the other hand, are the characters actually formed by the country and culture they're nominally from, or are they just white Americans (Europeans) in race drag? Do they speak flawless English apart from the odd interjection, n'est pas, not always correctly used?

For example, is Alastair Reynolds' Blue Remembered Earth good or bad in this respect?

It's bland. Points for showing Africa as a prosperous era of future Earth and showing off the future as consisting of more than just white people (iirc most characters were people of colour), but for me at least there never really was a good sense that the book was set in Africa, no real sense of place, other than that the protagonist was working with elephants in a reservation in Kenya.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:11 AM on October 2, 2013


Count me another one who's a little confused about your definition of "orientalism," especially as you dismissed Aliette de Bodard, who is half Vietnamese, with the same label.

As far as I know I haven't mentioned Aliette de Bodard at all here? Or did you mean this comment from a previous thread?

Anyway orientalist writing has nothing much to do with the ethnicity of the writer, as much as it has to do with buying into specific sets of cliches about Asian countries.

In Bacigalupis' case, the windup girl is a geisha stereotype of the Japanese woman as exotic, readily sexually available, compliant and subservient, with an extra helping of sexual abuse and rape.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:28 AM on October 2, 2013


Yeah, I've been in a bit of a reading slump lately--not really enjoying all that much that I've tried, and Windup Girl is on a list of books I've started and abandoned. I just--there was nothing really enjoyable for me there. Not one character I liked or even found that interesting, and yes I think the criticisms here are pretty accurate--especially about Emiko.

Too bad a number of things on my own To Read pile are not getting great reviews here either.
posted by freejinn at 6:28 AM on October 2, 2013


In Bacigalupis' case, the windup girl is a geisha stereotype of the Japanese woman as exotic, readily sexually available, compliant and subservient, with an extra helping of sexual abuse and rape.

I thought that was sort of the point. The windup girl was made that way because of the geisha stereotype. Were we to invent realistic sexbots it is a safe bet that it would be one of the first models sold. Because people are yucky.
posted by Justinian at 11:40 AM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm a little hesitant about the YA titles - how do they compare?

I really liked both The Shipbreakers (excellent meditation on climate change as an agent for accelerating the stratification between haves and have-nots) and The Drowned Cities, which provided a genuinely sympathetic fictional account of child-soldier conscription. The notion of people being engineered as soldiers and struggling to overcome their biology is not new (end of Brin's The Postman, anyone?), and the notion of non-consensual child conscription just as worn (Ender's Game, Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky), but I thought that Bacigalupi did a great job telling a story that would walk younger readers through the ethical questions surrounding guerilla warfare.

As to the discussion going on about non-white-straight-men writing in SF, it always amazes me that the laundry lists of recommended reading never includes either Suzette Haden Elgin OR Sheri S. Tepper. Both are quietly mindblowing, and the way Haden chose to write Earthsong as a series of elliptical flashes across thousands of years was such a great way to reference her overriding theme of language as the means for shaping and reshaping reality.
posted by sobell at 3:48 PM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's shitty, orientalist (as is Bacigalupi himself)

I shared the discomfort with both the sexism and the portrayal of Asia (Malays in a blood thirsty Islamic rage particularly). Doubly so as I read it while holidaying in SE Asia.
But I found it a believable, if desperately unappealing future. I also got hung up on the lack of solar/wind, but less so. There were hints about a global agreement on CO2 emissions (or why not run the gov computers more, they had a coal power budget and there was the legit green cooking gas and illegal, uncolored black market gas). And an equally large theme was the harm IP laws caused the developing world in genetics.
I think it is a failing of feminism and multiculturalism that proponents of these noble ideas can be critical of fiction that reflects a world negative of those ideas.
Certainly, there is no shortage of real world racism and sexism from the holders of power, so I'm not sure why a fiction author describing a scenario where the power structure continues to be overtly sexist and racist is a failing of the author.
I certainly didn't get an impression that Bacigalupi endorsed Japanese sexbots or Thai government corruption, or Malay Chinese genocide. Why is telling a story, I would suggest a strongly cautionary story, viewed as being sexist/racist when it describes a future that he presents well, IMHO, as pretty plausible.
The short stories in Pump Six that deal with Americans certainly paint them in no better light.
Are anti-sexists/anti-racists arguing we should only have stories that show future harmony and utopias? (and I count myself as a anti-sexist, anti-racist and don't feel that way)
Plenty of fiction has explored the dark side of humanity, what makes this exploration sexist and racist, if we accept that sexism and racism exists and describing it is something writers should be allowed to do?
If you read TWG as a support of sexism and racism, I suggest you are reading it very wrong.
posted by bystander at 7:13 AM on October 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


MartinWisse: In Bacigalupis' case, the windup girl is a geisha stereotype of the Japanese woman as exotic, readily sexually available, compliant and subservient, with an extra helping of sexual abuse and rape.

Justinian: I thought that was sort of the point. The windup girl was made that way because of the geisha stereotype. Were we to invent realistic sexbots it is a safe bet that it would be one of the first models sold. Because people are yucky.

bystander: I shared the discomfort with both the sexism and the portrayal of Asia (Malays in a blood thirsty Islamic rage particularly). Doubly so as I read it while holidaying in SE Asia.
But I found it a believable, if desperately unappealing future.


I think the ugly future and the terrible people were exactly the points Bacigalupi was trying to make. And he's not some farm boy from Colorado - from the Rain Taxi interview: "I ended up spending a fair amount of time on the other side of the Pacific, and some of my most formative years in China" -- emphasis mine.

Again, this isn't to say that he has a thoroughly nuanced understanding of the diverse Asian cultures, but he isn't an ugly American painting the world from his bedroom window.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:02 AM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


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