Friday, September 02, 2011

Book Review: The Windup Girl

Paolo Bacigalupi
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

The Windup Girl takes place in near-future Bangkok after several environmental nightmares have come true. Worldwide oil supplies are completely depleted, so all machines and vehicles are wind, hydrogen, solar, coil-spring, pressure, human, animal, or coal-powered. Global warming has made temperatures soar and sea levels rise dramatically, so Bangkok has to be protected from complete inundation by a system of pumps and levees. And nearly all plants and animals have been wiped out by diseases and have been replaced with genetically engineered variants.

This last is not an accident. Agribusiness corporations deliberately hoarded stores of seeds and then manufactured the diseases, pests, and plagues that wiped out the naturally-occurring plants and animals, so they could profit by selling the starving world their own genetically-modified, disease-resistant, but sterile products. They now basically rule the world economy.

Thailand has held their own against the agribusiness corporations relatively well because they sealed their borders to imports and hired their own secret, illegal “gene-ripper” to develop new, fertile varieties of their own native plants and distribute them on the black market. One of the major agribusiness companies has sent in a secret agent, a “calorie man,” Anderson Lake, to try to discover who the gene hacker is and where his seed bank is stored. Along the way, he meets and (sort of) falls in love with Emiko, a Japanese windup girl – a genetically modified, semi-robotic human conditioned to obey and to serve.

Thailand is ruled nominally by a child queen, and in reality by her regent, the Somdet Chaopraya. Two of her ministries – Trade and Environment – are led by strong, ambitious men who vie against each other to be the next regent. The story is a little confusing and doesn’t really have any one central plot, but essentially what happens is that Emiko and the calorie man get mixed up in the escalating power struggle and eventually serve as catalysts leading to the death of the Somdet Chaopraya and bringing on an all-out civil war.

After I finished this book, I went back and forth for a long time deciding whether I liked it or not. On balance, I decided on a somewhat lukewarm yes.

The near-future Bangkok that Bacigalupi presents is rich and multi-layered and easily pictured. He has unique inventions – the windup girl herself, the calorie men, the genetically engineered animals that populate the city, and the types of energy and propulsion that people have to use in a petroleum-depleted world.

On the other hand, there are a couple major things that are either too disturbing or too annoying to ignore.

First: language. For one thing, this book is written in the present tense, which I’m realizing I generally don’t like in a novel (although I have to admit that it isn’t nearly as annoying here as it is in the Yiddish Policemen’s Union). But the primary irritant in this one is the use of hyperbole.

Everything is described so dramatically. This over-emphasizes the minor events and makes them seem cataclysmic, so that you get desensitized to the drama, and then the parts that really are cataclysmic have less of an impact than they should.

Also, his hyperbolic phrases are pleasing and catchy at first, but after they are used for the fourth or fifth time, they begin to seem formulaic. After a while, I started writing down the particularly obvious repeats:

- Alleys running thick with blood
- Light spearing eyes
- Scalding skin / skin on fire (with heat)
- Ribs exploding with pain / ribs screaming (after beatings)
- Blossoming (e.g. Blood blossoming red after person is shot; a blossom of pain; legs blossoming with hurt)

Second, and more importantly: there are two major rape scenes, both involving Emiko. I’m not sure how to judge the necessity of a graphic rape scene, but these certainly were very disturbing and seemed to go on well past the point where the point was made. I really started to bridle viscerally at how much Bacigalupi felt he had to do to prove how Emiko’s conditioning made her obey even at the cost of her total shame and extreme physical pain.

I did particularly like one of the first scenes in the book, though, where Anderson Lake has to shoot a megodont (a genetically engineered elephant) who has gone rogue in his factory. It reminded me a lot (perhaps intentionally so) of George Orwell’s great essay Shooting an Elephant.

1 comment:

Cthulhu, Destroyer of Worlds said...

For an educational discussion on writing about rape, here is a great article by Jim C. Hines from Apex Magazine.

(Tip of the hat to Errant Tiger.)

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