A Conversation With Paolo Bacigalupi and Taiyo Fujii
Translated by Evan Galloway
This talk is the translation of the transcript published in SF ga yomitai! 2014 (Want to read SF! 2014, Hayakawa Publishing), of the recording for the panel at Japan SF Convention, “Koikon” on July 20th, 2013 in Hiroshima, Japan. The Windup Girl (Japanese edition) by Paolo Pacigalupi won the Seiun Award for Best Translated Long Story, 2012, and ranked in 2nd place for Best translated SF in SF Magazine. Gene Mapper was ranked in 4th place for Best Japanese SF 2013 in the magazine.
NB: During the panel, Paolo Bacigalupi spoke in English. The published transcript is in Japanese. Our translation below is a translation of the transcript, meaning that English text was translated into Japanese and then back into English. Also, Bacigalupi’s latest book is The Water Knife. We recommend it highly.
Bacigalupi: I heard that Gene Mapper is set in Vietnam. What kind of research did you do when you decided to make Vietnam the setting for your novel, Fujii-san?
Fujii: I actually spent about six weeks working in Ho Chi Minh City supporting and training local employees to use CAD tools. I didn’t particularly do any research outside of what I experienced during that time. I only visited, worked, and had the coffee.
Bacigalupi: There’s always somewhat of a culture shock when you visit a new place for the first time. When I visited Thailand, it was quite different than what I had expected it to be, so I was able to draw some amazing inspiration. For example, at the markets, I saw this strange, red, hairy fruit called a rambutan, and the moment I saw it, I knew I wanted to include it in some way in my novel. By including little details that are particular to a place like that, it helps the story feel unique.
Fujii: Indeed. I was shocked at the state of Internet infrastructure when I visited Ho Chi Minh. I included this in Gene Mapper, but they can’t use ADSL which runs off of pre-existing phone lines, so they actually run individual DSL cables to each house. You can see hundreds of these cables bundled up, running along the ceilings. Obviously, it’s very easy for them to get cut. This was part of the novel, but it’s actually how things still are over there (laughs).
Bacigalupi: I see! I find it particularly stimulating to hear these little, special differences in how we live our daily lives. They’re great to include in a story. When I was in Thailand, I was surprised to see everyone walking around outside, all of them wearing yellow…
Fujii: Ah, “Yellow Monday”! I believe they all wear yellow on Monday in order to express their thanks to the king, was it?
Bacigalupi: Yes, that’s right! I wondered how all of these people could have coordinated their outfits to be like that on the same day (laughs)! As a Westerner, it was surprising to hear of this tradition to wear a specific color on each day of the week, and it came as quite a shock to hear that one of those days was dedicated to the king. Seeing the town dyed in yellow like that really shows how much respect the Thai people have for their king much more intensely than you could ever glean from just reading that as a fact in a book. It also reinforced the importance of understanding these unique aspects of a culture and working that into a story that features that place as the setting.
Fujii: I once encountered a coup d’état and all of the participants were wearing red shirts. In that sea of red, I spotted a single American tourist wearing a yellow shirt. At first, I was worried for his safety, but the participants in the coup were actually waving at him as he took pictures! Most of them were working-class farmers or taxi drivers, so perhaps they weren’t too concerned about the rules (laughs).
Bacigalupi: Also, it seems like taxis are pink over there because pink is the queen’s color. In America, nobody has respect for anyone else (laughs), so it was really interesting to see people so highly revere those at the top. I really wanted to embed this way of thinking into the three characters in The Windup Girl.
Fujii: What really surprised me with The Windup Girl was how it was written with the idea that Thailand embraced GMOs. Back when Prime Minister Thaksin was in power, they tried to bring in GMO rice that could be harvested four times a year, but right when the contract was about to go through, there was a coup and it never happened. Ever since, the country has been quite opposed to GMOs. It was great to see that idea worked into The Windup Girl.
Bacigalupi: Thank you very much. Fujii-san, why did you decide on Vietnam for the setting for your novel?
Fujii: Earlier I had brought up the Internet structure in Vietnam, but in actuality, it’s very common for communication cables to get cut over there, which households will fix by splicing in to another family’s cable. Therefore, you can’t be sure who is actually paying for the Internet you’re using. On top of that, there are over a thousand Internet cafes and almost all of them use the same SSID for their wireless Internet, so you don’t know who could be connecting from where. Sometimes MAC addresses for the hotspots end up being the same as well, so the overall whole infrastructure there is simply put, chaotic. All of that confusion gave me some strong inspiration to come up with a situation where there might be some sort of hidden network, separate from what was originally there. That’s why I chose Ho Chi Minh City for the setting.
Bacigalupi: So what exactly inspired you to write about a “hidden network”?
Fujii: We’re going backward now, but originally, I wanted to write a story about people whose job it was to “salvage information.” That was where it started–for the profession of “info salvager” to exist, we have to take the existing network out of the picture, so we get rid of the Internet, and in its place, I put in this network called the “TrueNet.”
Bacigalupi: It’s always incredibly interesting for me to hear how people got their inspiration for writing a novel. The inspiration for The Windup Girl came from organic farming. I grew up with the hippies in the 70s, and they were terrified of Monsanto. But what is scary is also inherently intriguing, and thus, like picking at a scab, I found myself wanting to know more and more about them.
Fujii: I grew up on Amami-oshima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture, and until I was in first grade, whenever a typhoon would hit, we’d lose all of the sugarcane. By the time I was halfway through second grade, about half of them would remain after a typhoon, and by the time I was in third grade, about 80 percent of them would survive. These little saplings would get stronger and stronger as the years went by, and I observed this with childish wonder as I realized how powerful the concept of selective breeding was. That was my first experience with science. However, those farms that couldn’t afford buying these new saplings would, just like always, have their crops blown away, and thus the roots of capitalism were planted in my young, fertile mind (laughs).
Bacigalupi: What you saw was an optimistic use of technology. It’s an intriguing observation. At a most basic level, technology itself isn’t something that can be classified as good or bad–that is decided by how we decide to utilize it. While we create plants that can survive the effects of a typhoon, we also create terminator seeds that cannot reproduce. Technology is a mirror that reflects us. Why do you choose to look at technology optimistically, Fujii-san?
Fujii: My background as a computer engineer might have influenced that. In the world of computing and software development, we reap enormous benefits from an “open source” culture. For example, I once discovered a very serious security hole and released it to the public without informing the manufacturer first. At first, many people were very angry with me, but as I continued to participate in sessions with influential software development companies, slowly but surely, things began to get better.
If you all have used Mac OS, you might be familiar with that dialog box that pops up when you download a piece of software asking if you would like to open it. I actually designed that (audience applauds). I was able to change the world, just a little bit. Perhaps experiences like that where people can make a difference in the world, albeit a slight one, are what make me optimistic about technology.
Bacigalupi: The culture of “open source” is truly an optimistic one. I can see why the characters in your story are of the same mindset as well.
Fujii: However, on the other hand, I am aware that there things that we cannot undo when it comes to technology. For me, my optimism isn’t like climbing a mountain then going back down. I think it’s more similar to the thrill of sliding your finger up the blade of a knife and stopping right before you get to the tip.
Bacigalupi: Right… if we’re talking optimism or pessimism, I think my stories tend to be more pessimistic. I think the root of it is my experience growing up in this late capitalistic period in America. Growing up, I was told how the free market is a good thing, but with a constant, ongoing focus on short-term profits, I have to wonder if we might fall into a dystopian scenario at some point.
Fujii: Is that your prediction for the future, or just a thought?
Bacigalupi: Just a thought. In science fiction, we take on topics like computing, nanotechnology, and the free market. I write about the fear we have towards those things, not a prediction of what the future might be.
Fujii: Thank you very much. Let me ask you a question, then. Mr. Bacigalupi, you have written many dystopian novels on the topics of energy, chemicals, and agriculture, but why have you not taken on the topic of war?
Bacigalupi: I’m not very interested in apocalyptic scenarios. Nuclear weapons are certainly scary, but they were created in order to induce fear. Rather than looking at the influence a single war or a single explosion can have, I think it is much more important to look at how several small decisions can gradually lead to a terrible outcome. For example, say someone built a new home in your hometown. Nobody would really take notice. But gradually, as more and more homes are built, that town becomes a big city, and people don’t realize what was lost in the process.
Bacigalupi: That’s exactly right.
Fujii: What do you think of singular events like 9/11 that have drastic worldwide impacts, then?
Bacigalupi: There are times like on 9/11 where America changes overnight. The America I grew up in was peaceful and never even thought about war. From our perspective, it is terrifying to see America now sending spies across the world, with war becoming part of its lifestyle. On the other hand, our children’s generation is living in a world where they have to think about war, and while they don’t understand what it was like for our generation, I believe they don’t fear it as much as we do.
You can apply this line of thought to environmental issues as well. There are defined points that go along with each generation, and we look at things completely differently “before” and “after” those points. I was born in a town of 1,000 people, so I know what was lost when that town grew to 2,000 people. My son, however, who was born when the town was already 2,000 people, doesn’t know what changed. As we shift from one generation to the next, the current generation loses the insight that the previous one had, and that becomes a natural thing.
Fujii: We in Japan experienced an event two years ago* where we speak of things “before” and “after” it. I believe history is made up of big changes and a succession of small changes. You write dystopian stories and I write utopian–well, not utopian stories, but stories that are an extension of the present day. It is certainly intriguing to consider their differences.
*Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011