With the “Hunger Games” movie, based on Suzanne Collins’ young adult novel, now ensconced as one of the hottest cultural phenomena of the year, future “dystopias,” or the bad-dream opposites of idyllic utopian societies, have become all the rage, at least for the moment.
This makes the work of Colorado science-fiction author Paolo Bacigalupi, who spoke at Auraria April 4, and whose new novel, “Drowned Cities,” appears May 1, quite timely.
In lieu of relationship angst, Bacigalupi presents a future world whose younger citizens must use cunning strategies to survive and cope with ongoing shortages of water and basic services. City infrastructures have gone to hell, suburbs are in ruins and rural food production serves to profit the few. Meanwhile, unchecked global warming is the cause of the “drowned cities” running from Washington, D.C. to New York coastal areas. And anarchy is only avoided through sinister security forces who appear in different guises, but all assure that the ruling-class “haves” maintain control while “have-nots” barely get by.
The dystopias he describes in two previous novels and a short story collection could come to pass if we persist with the same policies while ignoring very-evident realities, Bacigalupi said in Tivoli Turnhalle during a talk sponsored by the Metro and CCD English departments and several other campus groups.
“We can anticipate consequences,” he said. “But if we stay on our present path, we will see these scenarios.”
Ignoring realities in favor of half-baked superstition or theology has now spread to high levels of American government, Bacigalupi said during a Q&A session.
“Last year, I was in Austin, Texas, for a book-signing event while Texas was in one of its worst droughts — more than 100 days of no rain — in its history,” he related. “But, while dismissing climate change as barely a ‘theory,’ there was Texas governor Rick Perry (an early front runner among Republican presidential candidate hopefuls this year) taking part in a group praying for rain at the Texas capitol.”
Bacigalupi, 39, lives in the Colorado Western Slope town of Paonia; home to the High Country News periodical that has been an environmental voice for decades. After graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio, he lived in China, New York City and elsewhere to gain a worldview that’s hardly local.
Success as a writer, which didn’t come until his 2009 book “The Windup Girl,” didn’t come easily.
“My wife was beyond supportive,” Bacigalupi said. “She didn’t even laugh after my first four novels were rejected by publishers.”
Published by Night Shade Books, “Windup Girl,” which deals with bio-engineering in a world where fossil fuels are no longer available, was named one of the ten best novels of 2009 by Time magazine. It won the coveted science fiction Hugo, Nebula, Crook, Campbell and Sturgeon Memorial awards. His subsequent “Pump Six” collection of stories also drew critical accolades, while his young adult novel, “Ship Breaker, “ was nominated for the National Book Award.
In the “Pump Six” story, Manhattan is threatened by a sewage-overflow epidemic because no one can fix failing pumps that are more than a century old. The technology and repair manuals are long forgotten and bureaucratic incompetence makes matters far worse.
Meanwhile, students at Columbia University only want hedonistic pleasure. Books are crumbling to dust and an elderly widow of a deceased faculty member observes that students seem to be “getting dumber all the time.”
The landscape of “Pump Six” recalls a future world seen in British sci-fi master H.G. Wells’ 1895 “The Time Machine,” where books in libraries have also crumbled and civilization has devolved to a surface race of passive, pleasure-seeking “Eloi,” who are bred like cattle — to be eaten — by the brutish underground race of “Morlocks” who do all the work.
Often entertaining and with a wry sense of humor, Bacigalupi’s work builds on a long tradition of future dystopias. Aldous Huxley’s 1932 “Brave New World,” presents a caste society — Alphas on top, Epsilons at the bottom — where unpleasantness can be avoided by taking a drug called “soma.” George Orwell’s “1984,” written in 1948, has a need for constant citizen surveillance, extending to thought control by “Big Brother,” for political entities always at war. The enemy can change overnight and the fruits of technology are deliberately withheld as an additional control device by the ruling classes.
Robert Heinlein’s 1961 “Stranger in A Strange Land” describes a theocracy ruling America.
“Solutions,” said Bacigalupi, “won’t come from technology, but from social change.” He’s also hopeful that needed change will come from young people who haven’t bought into the “techno-fixes” earlier generations have failed with.
People: Paolo Bacigalupi