Greater Minds: Paolo Bacigalupi on corporate villains

  • In 2014, Paolo Bacigalupi discussed morality and corporate villains in science fiction with Mike Zipser.
  • He likens corporations to addicts in search of their next fix of cash.
  • Corporate dystopias are more threatening than tyranny, as there is no single point of vulnerability.
  • The FIFA scandal demonstrates the dangers of corporations in the real world.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath tells the story a family driven off their land by a rapacious bank.

John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener tells the story of a man investigating a rapacious pharmceutical company with influence extending into the British Foreign Office.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl tells the story of rapacious corporations trying to monopolise food supplies after the world has run out of oil.

The corporation as villain has been a running theme in the literature of the last hundred years, and is still going strong today. Last year, Paolo Bacigalupi’s reasons for using corporate villains were among the topics he discussed in an interview with Mike Zipser:

Profit and conflict

Profit is at the root of the conflict in many of my own stories. Foreclosure follows a bank official carrying out a repossession on a man who possesses nothing. Spookmoth’s characters scramble for the last dregs of profit to be wrung out of a drought-stricken USA. In Beside the Dammed River, a man eking out a living in a region devastated by upstream dam construction confronts corporate piracy.

I didn’t consciously select profit from a range of possible motivations for conflict. I’m not even particularly against profit as an idea. It simply fitted those stories.



Bacigalupi puts the reason squarely in storytelling terms, saying that he is not describing corporate greed but the ‘simplistic way of looking at the world that says we have to make profits this quarter’. Publically funded corporations are locked into a Darwinian competition in which failure to maintain value in the short term will frighten investors away to the competition and put an end to the company. Hence, as Bacigalupi puts it, a company is always ‘hunting for its next fix of cash’.

His terminology likens a company to an addict. Just as an addict may be tortured by their addiction while they leave a trail of destruction in their wake, so employees may hate the company they collectively steer in its ruthless pursuit of its cash fix.

As Steinbeck put it in The Grapes of Wrath:

The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.

The decentralised tyranny

Similarly, one of the protagonists of The Windup Girl is Anderson Lake, a man who is simultaneously an agent of the corporate system and a prisoner of it. He can either be a materially comfortable agent of the system or accept a large drop in his own circumstances. Changing the system is simply not an option.


(spychic [CC / Flickr])

Much of the power of the corporate system lies in its decentralisation. Many authoritarian dystopias have the built in vulnerability of a single node of power. In Dune the all-powerful emperor and the mad bad baron conveniently meet on Arrakis, placing the entire power structure that Paul Atreides has been fighting in one place. No such coup is possible against a corporate dystopia. Remove one company and another will take its place.

Nor is it necessary for corporate villains to adopt the sneering evil of Dune’s Baron Harkonnen. They may be people simply trying to make the most of their situation such as The Windup Girl’s Anderson Lake or my own character of Angela in Beside the Dammed River.

As the essence of fiction is conflict, the world of corporations provides both a motivation for villainy and the power needed to carry it out.

Descriptive or Predictive

Are stories of corporate villainy reflections of the real world, predictions of the future or cautionary tales of what may happen if steps aren’t taken to prevent it?

The tension between corporate power and government regulation is a running theme in The Windup Girl. The bureaucracy responsible for controlling corporate excess is has been corrupted by the corporations it is supposed to regulate. When a maverick ‘white shirt’ tries to enforce the laws he is supposed to uphold, his organisation is quick to suppress him.


(Dayland Shannon [CC / Flickr])

It reflects a familiar pattern, in which corporations often have more to offer the people who are supposed to regulate them than the regulatory organisations themselves. Such influence is more often inferred than revealed.

To give a recent example, Switzerland-based FIFA’s decision to hold the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has been roundly criticised for years due to Qatar’s unsuitable climate and lack of footballing history. For years, commentators carefully stopped short of explicitly suggesting that bribes may have been paid, although it has been tacitly implied in every media discussion of the issue. It was only after the FBI indicted several FIFA officials earlier this year that the Swiss authorities moved to investigate.

There has been a very human cost to the decision to host the event in Qatar, due to the appalling conditions of the migrant workers building the stadiums. Health and Safety is so lax that a 2014 investigation placed the death toll among workers at over 500. Since then, it may have risen to 1,200 though investigation is difficult because the Qatari authorities do not encourage enquiry.

Chuck Blazer as a capitalist parable

It is one example among many of what happens when corporations are not properly regulated. It is one of the more entertaining to be reported because of the colourful characters involved. Key to the investigation was an American administrator who revelled in the name of Chuck Blazer, a man who rides his mobility scooter around Central Park with his pet macaw, allegedly rented a penthouse apartment for his cats and wore a wire to FIFA meetings for several years at the behest of the FBI.


(Devin Smith [CC / Flickr])

The broader interpretation of events like the FIFA scandal is questionable. A capitalist economy depends on corporations to generate employment and provide revenue for public services. Does that inevitably need to perpetual struggle between Bacigalupi’s cash addicted corporations and noble regulators, striving to contain the corporations to their beneficial place? Or is the FIFA scandal a rare example of a corporation being reined in while others indulge their addiction without being checked?
However we see it, the corporations are ready made machines of villainy for the fiction of a capitalist society. We will find many more of them between our pages.

Do you have a favourite corporate villain in fiction? What makes him, her or it stand out? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification

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