16 February 2011

The Windup Girl

This is probably the best science fiction book I've read since The Margarets by Sherri S. Tepper.
Admittedly I don't read all that much science fiction. I consider myself an SF fan, I like sci-fi TV and film, but when it comes to reading matter fantasy is my main love and I don't tend to read outside that genre as much as perhaps I should. I like soft science fiction* and although I have read hard SF I tend to find that if I do I also read something else at the same time, so I can feel like I understand something I'm reading.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The book is set in Bangkok in the future. There are no dates, which is probably a shrewd move on the part of Bacigalupi, as anything with a date can become dated, and those with a historical frame of mind (like myself) are likely to find fault with whatever date is given. As far as I can tell it is set about three generations after the fuel ran out. Our time is referred to as the Expansion, a golden-age when people and goods and all sorts of food were transported all over the globe. A time of plenty and decadence before plagues and genetic tinkering ravaged eco-systems and wiped out so many species of flora and fauna. There is a sense of dystopia to the setting, of mass starvation, of diminished population, of corporate greed and political factioning. However it doesn't feel like a regular dystopia, in fact I've never come across one like it. My view of a dystopia is something cold and industrial (which is probably a cultural, if not personal, thing), the future Bangkok of the book is definitely un-industrial, it's squalid and crowded and mostly it's hot.

The heat and humidity are very palpable in the book. Whilst several of the characters are Thai or Chinese, there is a farang (foreigner) from America who is obviously uncomfortable in the tropic climate. There is also the eponymous windup girl, one of the genetically-engineered beings who are created by the Japanese. They are prone to over-heating in any high temperatures and are designed to be kept by the rich who can afford climate control, being in Bangkok is agony for her most of the time. The setting seemed exotic and different to other settings I've read about. I don't know much about modern Thailand- and the author does warn that this work of fiction is not to be taken as a reflection of it- but it was interesting to learn random Thai words and see how the Kingdom was viewed by both the native and foreigner characters.

The world is revealed through the events of the story, info-dumping is kept to a minimum. The plot starts out fairly slowly, but as the reader is invested in the characters and finding out more about the setting this doesn't matter. Getting information and building a picture of what's happening early on is just as interesting as the fast paced action and sudden changes of fortune that come later in the book. The plot is basically a political thriller, seen through the eyes of non-politicians. The story features factions and trade disputes and dwells on the conflict between entrepreneurship and traditionalism, but it doesn't feel like you're reading about these things because it's all so absorbing and fascinating. The author makes us care about these things because the characters do, and the characters are in most cases so invested in these things that they become matters of life or death.

Anderson Lake is an American factory owner in Bangkok, or at least that's what he seems to be. He's on a mission and is desperate to accomplish it. Despite having an American character (with a name like that, there's few other places he could be from) there is very little about America in the book. I'm not even certain that it's what we would recognise as the US anymore. The main references are made about the Midwest calorie companies, global corporations that control the world's food supply, or try to.

Hock Seng is a Chinese refugee from Malaysia (known as a yellowcard). Once a rich man he's survived a sudden reversal of fortune which has made him paranoid and opportunistic. You can't help but feel sorry for the old man who is simply trying to perpare for the next time his world gets swept out from underneath him.

Emiko is New People, otherwise known as a windup -created and trained by the Japanese to be a pleasing servant. Like Hock Seng she has sunk low and realises that despite the luxury in which she used to exist, she has never had any say in her own fate. Classed as illegal goods in Thailand she lives in discomfort and survives by being abused and degraded for others' entertainment.

Jaidee is a passionate man. A Captain in the Environment Ministery he sees it as his job to protect the Kingdom from disease and famine which are so rife in the outside world. Resolute and incorruptible, it's surprising how good-humored and swashbuckling Jaidee is. Certainly from early on he is one of the more dynamic characters.

Kanya is Jaidee's Lieutenant. Dour and serious she is initially overshadowed by Jaidee's exuberance, but soon comes into her own. Kanya is not perhaps the most likeable character but it's hard not to sympathise with the position she's in, even if it is of her own making.

This book won a Nebula, (joint)Hugo and Locus award. I can see why. I definitely recommend this to anyone who enjoys a good adventure story and doesn't mind being made to think too.

1 comment:

  1. "There is a sense of dystopia to the setting"

    I got more than a sense; it pervades the whole book. Thailand appears to be about the best place in the world, and it's clinging on by a knife edge, the technology has gone, the people are all but about to starve, corruption is endemic, it's beset economically, militarily and socially, and the food chain is just teetering on the edge of collapse...

    Might not be a cyberpunkish or industrial-Victorian dystopia, but it's just about as grim as it gets without being Armageddon.

    I really enjoyed the book, lovely setting, nicely realised characters (even Jaidee, who could have been a cookie cutter Paladin) and a twisting, involving plot in an interesting world.