Monday, May 23, 2011

A Fascinating, Frustrating Girl

Sometimes a novel comes along that lives up to all the hype, one that astounds the reader with its freshness of vision and execution. Paolo Bacigalupi's Nebula- and Hugo-winning The Windup Girl is just such a novel. Set in a world where oil production has bottomed out and global warming has swept away coastal metropolises with rising sea levels, once-grand nations have contracted into provincial powers. Most have replaced fossil fuels with kinetic power, storing joules in specialized kink springs wound by specially engineered elephantine precursors called megadonts. But few countries can easily replace another equally scarce resource -- food. Agricultural monopolies bolster the marketing of their sterile crops by releasing blights tailored to kill natural growths and any who eat them. However, mutations to these designer diseases have put even the so-called calorie companies on the defensive, and their operatives scour the globe for any genetic material that can help put their herbicidal Pandora back in its box. Thailand has resisted the conglomerates at every step, which is why AgriGen's Anderson Lake is in the drowned city of Bangkok, posing as a factory operator. His right-hand man, Hock Seng, has a more mundane goal, namely to build a new life for himself after Malaysian jihadists murdered his family. Meanwhile, Environment Ministry enforcer Jaidee Rojjanasukchai seeks to keep Thai soil free of calorie company crops, as well as the genetically engineered servants known as wind ups. This terrifies one such wind up named Emiko who was abandoned by her master and now survives by selling her body in a brothel. Unbeknownst to this divergent group, circumstances are conspiring to bring them together in a violent confrontation that will rock Bangkok to its very foundations.

If William Gibson and Timothy Hallinan decided to collaborate, The Windup Girl might be the result -- and that's intended as high praise. Bacigalupi keeps his characters well-rounded and ethically conflicted, his plotting always unexpected and never forced, his setting ... Well, as you can probably tell from that overlong intro, the setting is a thing of pure beauty, jaw-droppingly complex and well-realized. I could pile on superlatives, but suffice it to say that while reading one almost feels the jungle heat, smells the salt spray of a rising ocean kept at bay only by ingenuity and good fortune, sees the saffron-robed Buddhist monks and the white-shirted Environment Ministry police threading through rickshaw-choked streets. Windup is the sort of book that can twist you into knots with sheer admiration and envy.

And yet ...

Typical, I avoid critiquing a novel's thematic content. After all, that's really more of a reader's job than a reviewer's. But a pair of controversial topics so thoroughly inform Windup's action that they deserve mention. The first is Bacigalupi's advocacy of economic isolationism, the populist notion that nations only survive when cut off front international trade. One bureaucrat tells Anderson that specializing to make use of its comparative advantages nearly brought Thailand to the brink of ruin, a notion that would raise eyebrows on most economists. Ditto for the concepts of economic assassins and coup-instigating corporations with their own standing armies. However, the novel's second big idea, that of genetic determinism, proves more problematic. Not only does Emiko suffer all sorts of degradations (some of which recall the awful ending of Requiem for a Dream), but Bacigalupi also implies that she submits to them somewhat willingly and that because of the content of her genome. A rogue scientist implies she owes her sexual subservience to having her helix spliced with that of Labrador retriever. Such a biological obliteration of free will surely goes too far and certainly ignores recent research into how quantum entanglement fits with the mind-brain dichotomy. The Windup Girl is an amazing read, one that every fan of speculative fiction should pick up, but it ultimate proves just as frustrating as it is fascinating.

(Picture: CC 2002 by besar bears)


Ben Mann said...

The Windup Girl has probably been my favourite read so far this year. While certain SFnal elements might be questionable, I found it easy to look at how much ongoing debate is occurring in these fields, shrug and just buckle in for the ride Bacigalupi's built for me.

I also suspect that this, along with China MiƩville's The City & the City, gives a little insight into what makes the Hugos tick - worlds both fully realised and original.

Loren Eaton said...

It truly is wonderfully written. Bacigalupi's has quite a future in front of him, I'm sure. Those two themes really did frustrate me, though. It isn't that he included them in his novel. (Gibson had the big predatory corporation all throughout his Sprawl trilogy.) It's that they were so thoroughly incorporated into the narrative that I couldn't just ignore them.

Still, really well-written book.

AidanF said...

I was just discussing The Windup Girl with a coworker to whom I had recommended the book. He was disappointed with certain aspects of the world-building (i.e. it hadn't passed his suspension of belief).

Yet, I think what I liked most of all was the strong Thai world-feel it created and I enjoyed the way it sprinkled bits of pieces of the language into the story.

Loren Eaton said...

If you liked the Thai-ness of Windup, you really should read Hallinan's Breathing Water. It's a wonderful hardboiled thriller with tons of Thai culture in it. Definitely worth your time.