Friday, February 26, 2010

Book review: The Windup Girl

The initial meeting of my book club occurred last night.  It's a group of four old friends.  We've known each other for close to 20 years, avid readers all.  And since life does have a tendency to pull people apart when the tide is strong, we've formed a book club as a sort of breakwater against those currents.

Our initial read was The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, a science-fiction book portraying the world some three-hundred years in the future.  In Bacigalupi's world, humanity at every level, individual, clan, corporation, bureaucracy, even an entire culture, must scramble to find its niche in the constantly and rapidly changing world.

The excesses of the previous age, the "Pre-Contraction" era, have caused ocean levels to rise to the point where many lands have drowned. Civilization is starved for energy and food.  Rare and priceless fossil fuels have given way to spring technology and raw animal muscle.  Mankind's experimenting with gene technology has produced wonders and horrors:  "cheshires," scavenging mutations of common house cats that have so firmly established their niche as scavengers as to be ubiquitous; giant, four-tusked elephants, called "megadons," that drive the gears of industry; terrible and deadly crop diseases like cibiscosis and blister rust that threaten the global food supply; sinister, amoral calorie companies that maintain seed banks which they use as political weapons, and "New People," or "windups:"  humans, of a sort, created through genetic manipulation for specific servile purposes (sex toys, manufacturing line workers, soldiers).

The story takes place in "the Kingdom," with its below-sea-level capital of Bangkok which keeps the sea at bay with a system of expensive and vital levees.  The Kingdom has, until recently, maintained its sovereignty and independence from the all-powerful calorie companies through militant isolationism and fanatic, ruthless efficiency.  But things are changing in the Kingdom.  Recently fereng (an actual Thai word, meaning "foreigner") have begun to gain influence in the upper echelons of power. 

Into this highly-charged and desperate setting, Bacigalupi introduces a lengthy and fascinating cast of characters:  Jaidee, the loyal and courageous government minister who resists the encroachment of foreign powers into his beloved Kingdom; Hock Seng, the scheming Chinese refugee determined to rebuild the life he lost to a Muslim pogrom in Malaya; Anderson Lake, the cool, pragmatic calorie company agent, searching for a rogue "gene-ripper" who threatens the profit margins of Lake's employers; and, of course, Emiko, the windup sex toy woman who is nightly debased and humiliated in a sleazy nightclub, but desperately clings to survival.

And survival is what it's all about.  As my friend Will pointed out, the overall theme of the book is survival.  It is the sole motive for all the characters.  At least, up until the cataclysmic ending, where certain of the survivors undergo some subtle, redeeming transitions.

The characters are sympathetic, if somewhat thinly-drawn.  But Bacigalupi's focus is not so much character development as the creation of a plausible (all too plausible) future based on current trends and conditions.  The plot moves quickly; the story is chock full of intrigue and betrayal.  Bacigalupi does an admirable job of maintaining suspense; the book is a page-turner.

I was impressed with how Bacigalupi was able to present the new world reality through his character's thoughts and dialog.  He draws a broad-stroke outline for the world, then invites the reader to fill in the blanks.  There are many allusions to recent past events that are never fully explained (the Contraction, the "Finland" incident, the emergence of a religious entity known as the "Grahamites").  This ambiguity invites readers to join in the creation process; to draw from their own knowledge and experience to complete the world that Bacigalupi has begun.  That is the sign of a skilled writer.

I did notice some editing issues:  misplaced articles, pronoun conflicts, and the like, which I found a bit astonishing.  No fault of Mr. Bacigalupi, I imagine, but the editor really ought to have been more careful.  Things like that really detract from the book.  They interrupt the "narrative dream."  The story was good enough that I was able to overlook the errors, however.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  A great read.


PapaK said...

All right. Here's my two cents...

In general, I enjoyed the book overall. However, it took me a while to get into a real flow. I'm not sure if I'd blame it on the book, or on my own lack of focus, but the first 50 pages seemed to go much like The Windup Girl moves. I'll add that my expectations for the book may have been too high, after digging into the reviews and raves for the author. However, once things began moving, I dug the thing, for the most part. It moved well, with fine suspense throughout. (Although the author's need to turn "calories" into an idiom beyond its use as a description for the calorie companies did begin to grate on me about 1/4 of the way through.) I'm no science fiction junkie, but in comparison to my memories of many of the books I've read from the genre, Bacigalupi offers up some fairly good writing. Many of his setting descriptions are fantastic, although some descriptive passages may have been improved via the cutting room floor. Certainly it would make sense that a short story writer might struggle to cut enough while working to expand his work to novel length.

For me, Bacigalupi does very well digging in and showing the experience from the minds of the characters. (One scene that stuck with me, for some reason, was when Hock Seng waited for Dog Fucker to come back in the elevator, before he went to see the Dung Lord. The author describes the scene through Hock Seng's thoughts. And the picture is painted extremely well, yet with a bit of the unknown left. And the unknown is then revealed from the shadows. The technique is classic, basic, and yet he pulls it off masterfully, IMO.) As would be expected when trying to show what's in the mind of an imaginary being, I did think that some of the thoughts he shows us from the mind of Emiko were a bit disjointed, although that was the point in certain passages. Still, as a general reader, Bacigalupi's character development proved to be a joy, and was likely the biggest reason that I finally got into a flow with the book. While the story itself is rather horrific all the way through, the characters' ugly humanity keeps moving the horror forward with a strange sense of hope.

As for the story, where to start? This is a perfect book for a book group, as one could discuss the story from any number of angles, metaphors and points of history. I always avoid discussing the reality of the "science" of any science fiction book, mostly because I must fight my skeptical urge (useful in the real world) while reading a book of fiction (not so useful in terms of enjoying the book). Further, I don't want to talk about today's GMOs or food production techniques, simply because that's been done, and I think the story works well without current events as a precursor. Besides the GMO discussion would be forced into a discussion about the reality of the "science," and that's just no good. :)

Then, of course, there are the matters of the steampunk-like setting, fundamentalists (given minor character development) who care about the environment, fundamentalists (with no character development at all) who simply destroy, bigotry (race), bigotry (sexism), and bigotry (class or caste). I've yet to drink a drop of alcohol, so those topics will have to wait. I do love the intricate and constant political maneuvering within the story. It's masterfully done, and has many historical antecedents. At the same time, it did seem to fall into a soap opera mode once or twice, or so it seemed to me while reading late at night.

Ms Catastrophe said...

Hi, I enjoyed your review and your comments. So, I thought that maybe you could help me with the following question: Do you have any idea what "Sz" means in the book? It's mentioned on page 196: "Such an unlucky number. Four. Sz. Four. Sz. Death." Any ideas would be appreciated. Thanks.