READ: "Readercon is the ultimate sci-fi experience, but only if you read," by Arafat Kazi
Paolo Bacigalupi's first novel, The Windup Girl (Nightshade Books), won the Nebula and the Hugo Awards for best novel and the Compton Cook Award for best first novel, and it was listed among Time's "Ten Best" books of 2009. It follows a set of characters through a series of ever-tenser circumstances in 23rd-century Bangkok. This is not a good time to be alive: global warming has flooded much of the world, and plagues and diseases like cibiscosis and blister rust keep mutating, destroying entire countries. Most original genetic material has been lost, supplanted by manufactured plants. And "calorie companies," whose bioterrorism is mostly responsible for these disasters, run the world. I caught up with Bacigalupi at Readercon 21 last month in Burlington.

The Windup Girl has been your big break, and you've been winning awards left and right.
It feels like I just woke up in some kind of fairy tale. I wrote four novels that never sold, and I kept trying and banging my head against the wall so many times, that when I finally sold The Windup Girl and knew it was gonna come out, I really didn't have any expectations at all. I figured, it's a science-fiction novel, and we know science-fiction novels don't do very well.

In many ways, though, it's not just a science-fiction novel, right? Most of the technology you describe, at least in terms of non-biological technology, is older than what we have now.
Yeah, it's more like throwback technologies. When I say science fiction, I think of classic Foundation, I think of rocket ships. But there's this other tradition of science fiction, which is sort of the stealth version. It's the stuff you see with Aldous Huxley or George Orwell, where you're extrapolating about who are we, where are we going, what our society looks like, and I feel very connected to that strain of science-fiction writing.

One of the interesting things aboutThe Windup Girl is that it all comes back to responsibility. Responsibility to one's self, or to karma, or, in Anderson Lake's case, to "calorie company" Agrigen. How did that come about?
It's interesting, because a lot of people find those characters unlikable, and I've always loved those characters. I think of them as different versions of myself. And I have empathy for people who make difficult or what we might say are unethical or cruel decisions. It's not so much that people are bad, it's just that under strain, people break and our ideals break. When you build an entire world where everybody's under strain, there's something there that's very powerful to me. People doing the best they can under hard circumstances.

Another thing inThe Windup Girl is that if you make a mistake that affects the entire world, you can't go back and change it. Like the BP oil spill. How do you feel about that?
When you look at something like BP, it's a storyline that shouldn't have existed. They couldn't see that the step-by-step actions were gonna cascade into something much bigger than themselves. I feel like that really applies to almost all of our environmental problems. I get on an airplane and fly out here to Boston — that has consequences bigger and more complex than I can understand. The BP thing — in the assumed storyline, we're going to drill down, we're going to get some oil, and everybody's going to make some money — suddenly becomes something else, the storyline veers off completely. And that moment where the story veers off and you realize we didn't actually understand our own story, that's what's fascinating.

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