Fiction by Paolo Bacigalupi

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Posted on Mar 14, 2007 in Blog, science fiction, Writing | 12 comments


I’m reading a book right now. SF. And I’m struck by how much world building the author is engaged in. He’s putting all this labor into describing future technologies, future cultural developments, future living structures… he’s working really hard to create a highly realistic and also highly disposable setting. I’m struck by how little the world he’s building actually seems to matter to the story.

The setting, while cohesive and technologically interesting, seems entirely divorced from the plot. He’s created a reasonable extrapolation of what life in 2300 might look like and what technologies might exist — and it is interesting, as an intellectual exercise — but I’m not really sure that the dating/networking tools that the characters are shown using are actually in any way relevant to the thrust of the story. It all feels like window dressing.

It’s as if he’s decided to write a story about the future, and because we know the future will look different than today, he is obligated to enumerate the differences. In the dating case, because we know networks will be big in the future, he’s showing how a social-networking tool like mySpace could be translated into meatspace so that people in a bar can pick each other up.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The tech is cool. The idea is fine. But it has nothing to do with the thrust of the story. It just feels like he’s spending a bunch of time futurizing his story.

Futurizing: The process of adding kick-ass gadgets, tools, and extrapolations to a sci-fi story to make it feel more futuristic so that it can fit more comfortably in the sci-fi genre. Closely related to Sense-of-Wonder Interior Designing.

Futurizing almost always has nothing to do with the core of the plot or the core actions of the characters. It’s just about the sci-fi bling.

I’ve actually had a story rejected because I didn’t futurize it enough. Basically, I was told that the premise was too outlandish for the relatively staid environment that I was placing it in: People were still basically people, they still had (updated) cars and malls, the setting just wasn’t out there enough. It was the future, quite distinctly, but the editor felt that the setting just wasn’t eye-poppingly different enough to support the core premise.

I’ve also had situations where I very consciously went back into a story and futurized it more so that it would be more appealing to market I was aiming at. I tried not to be cynically manipulative about it, but at root I was already satisfied with the story as it was and went back into the story to add more sci-fi bling to make sure it would fly in the market I was submitting to. So I’m guilty of futurizing myself. But I’m also conscious of the fact that every bit of futurizing I add means that a reader from outside the sf market is more likely to scoff at the story.

Last year, when I read stories submitted to High Country News for our attempt at a sci-fi issue, one of the major problems that cropped up was sci-fi’s determined techno-fetishism. We were looking for extrapolation, we got future fetish. These were not necessarily bad stories. Some of them were excellent. But the techno-fetish thing meant that they were entirely dismissable by readers from outside the sf genre.

A story that had a journalist in it inevitably meant that the journalist was going to be fitted with a camera for an eye. The response around the office when I brought this sort of sci-fi to people was “What the fuck’s going on with the whole cyborg thing?” Their bullshit meter for futurizing was extremely highly attuned.

Which makes me wonder about what parts of a sci-fi story are really necessary. It seems like in order to be cool and hot within the sci-fi genre you need to be adequately futurized. But in order to be relevant to the world outside the genre, this futurizing is a joke. Children of Men is sci-fi but (from what I understand, no I haven’t seen it yet, Lou) very little of its setting is. The core premise is sci-fi, and that’s enough. It doesn’t need any more sci-fi bling to carry it.

Personally, I write science fiction because it is the only literature which provides the tools I need to dramatize and crack open the concerns I have about the present. My fondest hope is that these stories will not remain inside the genre but will have some amount of impact on the larger world.

I want to be able to give a story like “Small Offerings” to my grandmother and have her really think about endocrine disruptors. I want someone to read “The People of Sand and Slag” and really think about our long love affair with techno fixes for the world’s ills. If these stories futurize too much, they become easily dismissed as silliness. Perhaps deservedly.


  1. Okay, 1) I would love to know what book you’re reading. I understand you not wanting to say so publically, but if my email addy shows up to you in these comments, care to share? Because it sounds like we’re a lot alike when it comes to SF, cause I could care less about futurizing and bling (a common critique of my stuff is that I don’t have enough). So getting to 2) THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR POSTING THIS!

    But I do think you’re right on the money. I get bored really fast when something I’m reading is all about the bling and not about characters and plot. I know there’s a huge number of SF readers today who CRAVE that bling and see it as completely necessary, but it boggles my mind. If the concept itself is SF, that’s enough for me.

  2. Oooh, and I wanted to add: I can’t wait to hear what you think of Children of Men. It seems like it’s right up your alley. :) I loved it save for one thing, but I will say nothing cause I’d hate to spoil you. :)

  3. What we as SF writers often run into these days is a kind of Mutually Assured Destruction scenario where One Cool Idea has to be topped with another. The better authors will try and make that idea central to the story (although even then not always successfully), but others will just plug and play, layer upon layer, busy window dressing. Sadly, it means that even some editors will look at the opposite and wonder where the SF is.

    Interestingly, my wife the non-SF fan wondered why some SFnal aspects were missing from Children of Men. I suspect her anticipation of window dressings (forex why didn’t they solve the problem by cloning? Or explain why they couldn’t?) was in her case a product of the media. It sure wasn’t expectations based on reading widely in the field. She barely reads even narrowly.


  4. Hi Derryl – my own wife also wondered that the future depicted in Children of Men hadn’t advanced significantly past where we were today. Some of these problems (if they are problems, and I think not as I read both films as allegory) occur in GATTACA, because they show a film where one can extrapolate anything from DNA but can’t seem to do anything about it. Love that film too though.

    I would cite Walter Jon Williams’ brilliant “The Green Leopard Plague” as a story that has layer upon layer of cool SFnal extrapolations in full support of story. I am wondering about the book that Paolo is reading too and have some possible candidates I’ll keep to myself.

  5. Yeah, Lou. My explanation to my wife was that, indeed, there may be such a background, but we don’t have to hear about it; it wasn’t central to the story we were busy watching. Didn’t seem to satisfy her, though.

    Forgot about Walter’s story. It is a good example of that.


  6. Lou and Shara, I think I’m going to keep the author to myself. I want to finish the book and see if he pulls anything out of his hat.

    Evan, I read the Mike Harrison piece. Yes, this is definitely related to what I’m concerned with. This is interesting:

    “Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there.” (emphasis my own)

    Harrison really seems to be touching on the finesse of writing well. I agree with his thoughts, but the thing that really fascinates me about world-building in sf right now, is the idea that sf may — because it’s so obsessed with futurizing — be speaking to its navel.

    The complaint is raised often enough that SF is ignored as a literature, and I can’t help wondering if its because we’re failing to lift our heads and speak outward.

    We can point to lots of stories that steal sf tropes, without acknowledging their origin. And we can all say, “Well, that’s really sf.”

    But I think outside readers know the difference. They know when we’re talking to our in crowd and flashing signs to each other instead of actually trying to communicate with them and I think our obsession with, as Darryl put it, “The Mutually Assured Destruction scenario” of trying to construct the coolest future furniture is a big part of this. We’re building some mighty high walls to scale if we actually want anyone to visit our playpen.

  7. Paolo, I have to agree with you on this. It’s interesting to see your take on Harrison’s post too, cause I know that raised a huge stink among fantasy readers, especially those of epic fantasy. Like you, I saw the parallels to SF myself, but hey, everyone brings something different to the plate. :)

    Can’t blame you for keeping the author to yourself. But if said author offends again, I do hope you’ll warn those of us who prefer to stay away from that kind of SF.

    Lou: I never have a problem with minimal, if any, SF window dressing in futuristic worlds. In Children of Men, their computers were futuristic enough for me, and the premise is enough to remind us that on the brink of extinction, we aren’t exactly going to be making grand technological progress, except (in this case) in the research of fertilization.

    Of course, P.D. James is a mystery writer, and the original book has even less SF in it than the movie, so that may be part of it too. BUT: I am not the kind of reader who minds. I’m too easily overwhelmed with futurizing, and often, I don’t buy the future that’s being handed to me or I view it more as “fantasy” than actual SF, no matter how plausible it might really be.

  8. That being said, I love Perdido Street Station because of its exhaustive world-building, and for the same reason I loved Tolkien as a child. I disagree with Harrison even as I agree with Paolo (and I think there’s room enough between the two that I can do that), and what I hate about Star Wars and latter-day Star Trek – for instance – is not the magnificent world-building – and it is magnificent – but that the world-building there isn’t put into service of something grander and more meaningful. Again, I hold up John Meaney’s Nulapeiron Sequence as a brilliant example of world-building in the service of narrative, not in place of it.

  9. Shara, I would never warn anyone about any author. One person’s sins are another person’s fetish, after all. :-)

    Lou, if you love Perdido for its exhaustive world-building, I think you’re crazy. If you love it for its *necessary* world-building, then I’ll still try to read the thing.

  10. I’m not sure how much of it is necessary. It’s a deeply political novel, for all of its horror elements, so a lot of it is relevant, because it’s in his interest to build up the situation that underlies the narrative via presenting the political and socioeconomic factors in the city with a good level of detail. But there are times when he slips and goes into tour guide mode, and even when working in service to the plot, he’s little concerned with economy of description. That said, those times don’t predominate, and the whole of the setting is densely realized. Mieville seems to have a cabbie’s knowledge of his locales. He’s just pointing stuff out to you as you go past it, sometimes relevant, sometimes not, but always interesting, and generally hinting at what a staggering amount of stuff he could tell you, if you needed him to carry you somewhere else.

    The primary problem with this is that he tends to invest almost every place the novel takes you with the same level of detail, whether it’s necessary or not. This has an impact on the overall pacing. Still, it’s quite a worthwhile read, even if you come to conclude that it’s still speaking inward.

    Speaking of inturning, if you ever get the time, I’d be interested to hear what you make of John Clute’s APPLESEED.

  11. China’s response, when I compared him to the writer of MOBY DICK:

    “People have compared me to Melville before, which, of course, is monumental praise, and there’s is the name thing. Turn my “i” into an “l” and change the place and we have the same name. I’m glad you think the values coexist. Several of the people on that symposium have said, “Look I admire your work, but you’re pulled in a pulp direction as a storyteller, and you’re also pulled in a more avant-garde ‘literary direction,’ and these are fundamentally pulling against each other.” I find that as a charge very interesting, and I’m not sure that I agree with it. I feel very confused about it, but it does seem to me to be a very interesting take. This has given me pause for thought. But I do retain this hope that you can actually have it both ways. And if you can have it both ways at all, fantasy is a uniquely powerful arena that would allow you to do that. So my aim would be precisely to write the ripping yarn that is also sociologically serious and stylistically avant-garde. I mean, that’s the Holy Grail right there!”

    Meanwhile, see the latest Asimov’s “On Books” for a ver y interesting take on INFOQUAKE that dovetails with this discussion:


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