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.