Saturday, 22 January 2011

book review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

I was excited about this Sci Fi debut and winner of five major international SF awards, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (that’s pronounced BATCH-i-ga-LOOP-ee, fact fans). So excited, in fact, that I prematurely placed it as one of my top 5 SFF books of 2010 (not actually published in 2010). I was a few chapters in at that point and was feeling optimistic, plus the book felt good and heavy and the frankly beautiful cover said it was ‘The Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel’ so all signs were pointing towards it being a winner.

It was released by Night Shade Books in the US and Orbit in the UK. I read Orbit’s paperback, published in December 2010, although in a burst of marketing-prowess, the publisher released the eBook shortly before the print version.

It’s set in 23rd century Thailand, in a world where Europe and America have succumbed to the calorie wars and ‘genehack’ plagues created by bioengineering companies, global warming has caused the oceans to rise and temperatures to soar and engineered seedbanks contain the world’s failing food supply. It’s Steampunk meets Science Fiction. Factories are powered by kink-springs, goods are flown over by dirigibles and cars are things of the past. Thailand is ruled by a child queen, but governed by two rival generals, Pracha, of the Environment Ministry, and Akkarat, of the Trade ministry.

The present tense narrative is split between several key players.

Anderson Lake is farang, an American who is working undercover in Thailand as the manager of a kink-spring factory, whose real purpose is to discover the whereabouts of the government’s seedbank on behalf of his employers, the calorie company AgriGen.

Hock Seng, one of the city’s unwelcome yellow cards - Chinese refugees and survivors of the horrific Malaysian purges - is employed by Lake and wants his factory blueprints, and, always, to survive another day.

Emiko is the eponymous character. Outlawed in Thailand, she’s a beautiful, genetically engineered Japanese windup who’s been designed to serve and obey but was abandoned in the city by her master. Emiko is now forced to work in the sex industry, spending her nights being repeatedly raped for other peoples’ pleasure, but also dreaming of escaping to the rumoured safe haven for ‘New People’.

Captain Jaidee and Lieutenant Kanya are White Shirts, vehemently enforcing the Environment Ministry’s brutal regime on all illegally sourced goods in the city. But Kanya’s loyalties aren’t what they seem.

Beginning with an enraged rampage from one of Lake’s factory megodonts – vast, genetically modified elephants – a domino effect of events occur within the confines of the city’s walls, inevitably leading to tumultuous consequences. Each of the main characters represents a division within the city of Krung Thep. Thai, Chinese, Japanese, the farang Westerners, the engineered windup. Each fraction hates the other with extreme prejudice and sweeping generalisations. This serves to both highlight the ridiculousness of racial intolerance and deprives you of a character you can emotionally invest in.

It’s an environmental social commentary. Man-made plagues have already wiped out much of the earth’s population and narrowed its food supplies, but still prejudices divide the remaining peoples so they are constantly at threat of turning on each other, when another plague or global warming-related disaster is always just around the corner.

Here’s why part of me is in awe of this book: it's unique, and brooding, and well-constructed. The present tense narrative has presumably been chosen to reveal the short-sightedness of the characters, as well as the uncertainty of their future as they all sit on the cusp of some cataclysmic event, waiting for monsoon season, waiting for an excuse to fight, waiting for another plague. They are living in a crucible of tension. The pace and tension are excellently built to the point where even the weather is against the characters, slowly bringing them to the boil amongst the nuances of political plotting. As a reader you feel like you’re watching a series of simmering pans to see which one boils over first. In the end it doesn’t matter, because Bacigalupi has engineered the narrative so expertly that it runs like clockwork, each part working against another towards the same grim conclusion.

And yet, despite my admiration for Bacigalupi’s talent, I can’t bring myself to love this book, because I couldn’t find any joy in it. The plot was excellently executed, but the characters left me cold. Each one has a necessarily dark past that is alluded to, but you still barely feel like you’ve scratched their surface. The characters are all products of their tragic lives, and their current situations are so dire it’s hard to gain any sense of hope, or really feel enough for one of them that you want them to survive their hardships. The only truly relatable character – again, this speaks volumes for Bacigalupi’s overriding message and gift – is the windup girl, Emiko, but her genes force her to go around in circles, never finding the escape she desires. Her rape scenes are harrowing – and even though they are a justifiable point in the plot, they resound through the text and set its bleak tone.

This is why I’m so torn over this book: I can see the writing talent and intent behind the desolate design - no one would want this future - but I also want to be able to root for at least one character, and instead as readers you’re constantly held at arm’s length.

The book is described as ‘hard science (fiction) and magical realism’ by io9, who absolutely loved it. Perhaps as a Fantasy fan, rather than a Sci Fi fan, I’m not the target audience. But Orbit are all for targeting ‘the widest possible readership’, it says so on their site. However, I clearly am of the ‘everything should be sunbeams and rainbows’ perspective, so I’d still encourage you to try this for yourself before accepting anyone else’s verdict, especially mine. I’d love to hear what you thought. Here's a free sample chapter. I do spoil you.


No comments:

Post a Comment