LIANE HANSEN, host:
Now, some more reading material. Paolo Bacigalupi's first book is a collection of science fiction short stories called "Pump Six." It's filled with ecological themes drawn in part from his friendships with scientists who live in his hometown of Paonia, Colorado. Rick Kleffel of member station KUSP has more.
RICK KLEFFEL: Paolo Bacigalupi began writing as an escape from his day job at a technology company. He was depressed and hated the work. He sought solace writing science fiction. His first novel met with no success. It was so dark that one editor rejected it saying, as a mother, this disturbs me. So he decided to try his hand at short fiction and had instant success with his story "Pocketful of Dharma."
Mr. PAOLO BACIGALUPI (Author, "Pump Six"): That one went out and it sold immediately and Gordon Van Gelder put it on the cover of the magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and I thought, aha, here I am, I have arrived. Then I proceeded to not write any more short stories for something like four more years.
KLEFFEL: Instead, he followed this up with an adventure set in China, a contemporary novel about the people in landscapes of Colorado, even a postmodern Western.
Mr. BACIGALUPI: It was only after I had written all these novels and not sold any of them that I sat down and thought, well, I actually sort of liked writing science fiction and I actually had some success writing short science fiction. Gee, maybe I ought to go back to that and try it again. You know, the one door that opened for me a little bit, maybe I should lean on that door.
KLEFFEL: Bacigalupi returned to the realm of the science fiction. In this passage from his story, "The Calorie Man," after genetically engineered diseases have wiped out crops in India, two immigrants end up in a devastated New Orleans.
Mr. BACIGALUPI: (Reading) And wasn't that why Shriram had come to him? Shriram, who knew more of his history than any other. Shriram, who had found him after he arrived in New Orleans and known for him a fellow countryman. Not just another Indian long settled in America but one who still spoke the dialects of desert villages and who still remembered their country as it existed before, Gene Hack Weevil(ph), Leif Curl(ph) and Rude Rust(ph).
Ms. MICHELLE NIJHUIS (Biologist, Environmental Journalist): Science fiction writers make a huge contribution to the debate.
KLEFFEL: Michell Nijhuis was trained as a biologist and works as an environment journalist. She lives in the same small town in Colorado.
Ms. NIJHUIS: I mean, I love to see science fiction like Paolo's that jumps off from real science, you know, jumps off of what we know about the modern world, because I think that has more relevance.
KLEFFEL: Bacigalupi takes the environmental themes Nijhuis documents and projects them into an unpleasant future.
Mr. BACIGALUPI: She goes out and sounds out information that then I can sit around and think, what does that really mean for us?
KLEFFEL: Paulo Bacigalupi continued to have success with short science-fiction, which caught the attention of publisher Jeremy Lassen. His Night Shade Books is based in California.
Mr. JEREMY LASSEN (Publisher, Night Shade Books): The large New York conglomerates and their science-fiction imprints are geared towards a certain numerical threshold, so there's a lot of opportunity in the marketplace for smaller publishers because I don't have the huge overhead that a large publisher does. And I can sell fewer copies and still have it be a profitable part of my business plan.
KLEFFEL: Lassen's distribution reaches into both independent and chain bookstores.
Mr. LASSEN: I can point out the high points of short fiction and say, this guy is really doing cutting-edge stuff or is an important part of the genre dialogue. You know, if I can make that case for a collection, I can do OK with it.
KLEFFEL: In the process of crafting the short stories, Bacigalupi built a world in which to set his next project, a novel, a form much more attractive to mainstream publishers.
Mr. BACIGALUPI: It's a political spy novel, all focused on genetically modified foods. Everybody's trying to find a seed bank and trying to find new genetic diversity. It's cloak and dagger stuff but with grain.
KLEFFEL: Paulo Bacigalupi hopes that potential readers already interested in the environment will also have an interest in his ecologically-themed works. For NPR News, I'm Rick Kleffel.