Saturday, December 10, 2011

I read a book! The Windup Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi

I'm not often moved to talk about a book I've read - mainly because I don't read enough.  But in this case, Paolo Bacigalupi has really inspired me to actually write a short critique / reaction thing.

The Windup Girl is a fantastic piece of futuristic science fiction, published in 2010 by Night Shade Books. It's been highly acclaimed as one of the best books of 2010, and was the winner of several sf awards, including the Nebula Award, the Locus Award, the Compton Crook Award and the Hugo.  In other words, it won pretty much all the sf awards.

You might call it cyberpunk, or post-apocalyptic - you might even make an argument for steampunk - but I'd say, just read the darned thing and call it science fiction.  And it's the kind of science fiction I like: thoughtful and mildly disturbing.  Not a utopic Star Trek kind of science/future, nor a post-apocalyptic dystopia like The Time Machine.

It's a scary kind of fiction, the kind that comes across as "it still could happen."

Part of the blurb on the back reads:  "What happens when calories bcome currency?  What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits, when said bio-terrorism's genetic drift forces mankind to the cusp of post-human evolution?"

There's a term for this genre:  It's ecotopian fiction, wherein the world has undergone (or is undergoing) massive changes because of an environmental shift.  It's also dystopic, which is a fancy way of saying "Life really and truly sucks in this world I made up."  I won't give it all away, because it's worth your while reading it and discovering it for yourself.  Suffice it to say that the plot revolves somewhat (a lot) around the genetic engineering practices that are happening right now, today

If I were to compare this world of Bacigalupi's to anything, I would say "Take the moodiness and overcrowding of Blade Runner, throw in an High Altitude Nuclear Explosion so that all or most of the technology is destroyed, add in some famine, flooding and fires, and sprinkle liberally with political interference by major corporations."  I really enjoyed the world he created.

Before I get into the nitty gritty, I'll say this much:  I almost loved this book.  It's rare that I think about a book I'm reading, once I put it down.  Not the case with The Windup Girl.  Considering the shortness of my attention span, I'm actually surprised at how much I've been thinking about this book, after the fact.

First of all, in terms of style, I'm on the fence.  Some of his scenes are brilliantly written, honestly they are.  The action scenes are worth your time.  The pacing is fantastic - almost.

I have two beefs with the book:  the beginning and the end.

His world is beautiful, vibrant, noisy, claustrophobic, smelly, brilliantly laid out.  But you need to take lessons in Cantonese, Thai, Japanese and anger management to get through the first, oh, 50 pages or so.

You pick the language up as you go along - if you're willing to stick it out.  You learn new words like farang and jai and bodhisattva, and I'm still not sure if they're all actual words or if they're figments of Bacigalupi's imagination (or mispronunciation), but that again is what's so compelling.  I can't tell where reality ends and Bacigalupi  begins, not without doing my own research.

But dang it, I nearly gave up on the book in the first 50 pages, because there were too many new words, too many new people, every chapter began in a new location with new characters - and while it's well executed, it seems like we're picking up part way through the story.  I wouldn't mind it so much if it was only one or two characters, but that many?

As for the ending (the last 50 or so pages), it has the exact opposite problem.  I'm not going to give it away, but, in terms of style, I really had the sense that the last forty pages were rushed, as if Bacigalupi suddenly looked at his watch and said "Oh crap, look at the time!  I'm sorry to have kept you.  Where was I?  Oh yes.  Right, that happened, and then some more stuff happened (and that was very sad), and then it ends."  And that's a crying shame, because I was willing to commit the time to reading the "extended version", if he'd written one.  It's like his pen was running out of ink, so he sacrificed quality for getting-it-done.  Or worse:  like he'd grown tired of writing and researching the danged thing and just wanted it done.

As for the middle 250+ pages, , I couldn't put it down.  The middle makes the book worthwhile.

What I really found refreshing about the book is that it's not set in a place I'm familiar with.  Quite frankly, I'm sick to death of futuristic stories set in the U.S., to the point where I probably won't read it.  Children of Men at least is set in the UK, but even then, it's familiar territory.  (For the record, I watched most of the movie, haven't read the book yet.)

But The Windup Girl is set in Thailand, a place I know almost nothing about (save from what I learned in The King and I), but which has its own rich history and future-history, and which has its own neighbouring rivals and pressures, its own ecosystem, its own weather patterns, its own personality relative to the countries that surround it, and its own aspirations.

And it's not homogenous either:  there are all manner of cultures - most of the Asian, for which I'm glad - plus a wide range of religions and beliefs.

On top of that, you have people from similar backgrounds who have differing personalities - an absolute must, when you don't want to accuse one ethnic group or another of being corrupt, or greedy, or cowardly, or saintly.  What you get, then, is a kaleidoscope of characters - and a fresh pair of eyes to go with it.

The personalities of each character affect their reactions to evolving situations; their actions affect other characters, who act and react according to their personalities and to the changing situations; and the situations in turn influence their personalities.  Oh, and just because he does it right, Bacigalupi also gives characters back stories that show how many of these concurrent personalities have evolved over time, and why.  Brilliant.

The characters themselves are not static, either.  They may or may not learn from their experiences; they may or may not be redeemable; they may be 60% good and 40% rotten, or 40% rotten, 50% selfish, and 10% saintly - you never know, and you won't know as you turn from one page to the next.  It's know...real people.

Character driven?  Plot-driven?  Understatement.  The Windup Girl is the ideal blend of plot and character, where the two are simply inseparable.  Character drives plot, plot causes characters to react.  Very elegant.

Cover of German translation
And like I said in the beginning, what he's writing about - bio-terrorism, genetic engineering, corporate greed versus ecological sustainability - it's already happening now.  Read up on companies like Monsanto, who, on the surface, are trying to overcome real-world challenges, like drought, poor soil conditions, and disease.  Then step back and realize that the genetically engineered (read "patented") seeds are actually sterile, meaning you are utterly reliant on the company to buy fresh seed, season after season.  More importantly, cut away the debate about genetically modified foods and give a harsh, critical look at the practices of the companies that sell them.  (I highly recommend reading this article, even if you don't read The Windup Girl.)

In the olden days, you'd plant a field of wheat; some of the wheat you grind up and make into bread and pastries and spaghetti; some of the wheat you keep, put back in the field, and lo and behold, you have next season's field of wheat.  The ultimate in renewable resources.  The harvest begets itself. 

Now, with genetic engineering - more specifically, with unethical genetic engineering practices - the corporation begets the harvest.  Once you're a farmer and you have nothing but a field of sterile grain, you have no choice but to sell what you've reaped, then take the money back to the corporation to buy next season's workload.  You no longer work as a farmer; you work as an employee of the unethical corporation.

Worse even:  if you're a salaried employee and if your computer breaks, the corporation goes out and buys you a new one.  But if you're "self-employed," if your harvest is lost to a fire, if you've lost a year's worth of labour and you have no money to show for it, you can no longer go out and simply plant another field full of grain.  You have to go back to buy more seed, because the stuff you bought the first time was sterile.  No harvest, no money; no money, no seed, no harvest.  You are SOL, through and through...unless you've invested in insurance, which feeds off your bad luck, etc. etc. etc.

And of course, if the company finds out you've been saving and reusing seeds from one season to the next, you could get sued; or better yet, if the corporation finds its patented products in your fields, even if it was transplanted by natural means (seeds blown across fences, deposited in bird dung), you could be in a world of hurt for unauthorized use of patented products).  It sounds ridiculous, and it's happening.

In a sense, in places where the genetic is king, farmers have become serfs once more, slaves to both government taxes and to the thuggish corporation.

In Bacigalupi's story, he takes it a step further:  these corporations have played god - but they're playing with their own food supply.  I think what he captures most brilliantly is the raw, blind greed of some zealous corporate executives, who are perfectly willing to trade their own sustenance for the prospect of total market domination, even at the risk of massive loss of life.

Finally, what I really found fascinating about this story was the moment when I let go of guessing and let Bacigalupi tell the story.  Usually when I read, I'm trying to anticipate what's going to happen next, sometimes I'm right, sometimes I'm close.  But in the reading of this story, I realized I no longer wanted to guess.  I just wanted to know what happened next.
Beautiful DeviantArt by SharksDen

The plot is well engineered and dynamic.  Character A plots X, but independently, Character B plots Y - which will undo X.  Then along comes Character C, who for perfectly rational reasons does Z, which forces Character A to do something spontaneous, which in turn forces the hand of Character B - around and around and around it goes - not confusing, not jarring, just...very, very well done.

Honestly, if he had balanced out the overly busy beginning with the too-minimalist ending, I would have loved this book inside and out.

But who am I to criticize the guy who won pretty much everything you can win in speculative fiction?  He won those awards for very good reasons:  ex-patriotism, research, realism, probability, and an excellent eye on human nature in the 21st century.

--  With thanks to Michael Lorenson for loaning me the book.

-- DeviantArt by SharksDen:  More info here.


  1. Sounds very much like Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, written in 2003, and winner of the Man Booker Prize...

  2. Also sounds a little like the world of William Gibson, back when he was actually concerned with telling stories, instead of describing tech. He had an issue with ending stories as well.

  3. Oh yeah, and why don't you have this auto-post to Twitter? We TALKED about this, P! LOL!

  4. 'Cause I haven't figured out how to do it yet! :P