on 24 July 2013
I have recently starting dipping my toe into dystopian fiction with Margaret Atwood and Liz Jensen, Paolo really is full immersion. This is an excellent book, rich in colour, smells, sounds, characters and fast paced story development. Set in a Bangkok of the future where the world has been devastated by constantly mutating plagues, wars and climate change. Oil has run out, the kingdom of Thailand for its very survival has cut itself off from the rest of the world. It is a seedy, filthy, corrupt, cruel and dangerous kingdom. Everything we take for granted today, our technology, our food, comforts, travel and health have been destroyed and replaced by famine, limited food stocks, coal power, manual labour. The 'evil' multi national corporation giants of today are the calorie and genetically modified food companies of the future who hold countries ransom for foods. However the world is battling all the time against the mutating plagues that keep destroying foods and killing humans. We see that Thailand managed to engineer its own seedbank which has made it independent of the external Calorie companies, Anderson Lake a 'calorie man' comes to Thailand under cover as a factory manager to investigate and hopefully gain access to that seedbank. Emiko is a despised genetically modified 'new person' a beautiful Japanese creation that has been abandoned in a kingdom which views her as an abhorrence. To me, Emiko is seen to represent the hatred the Thai people have for the scale of development and bio engineering that has brought the world to this sad state - although ironicly they use the bio engineered Megodont (new elephant) as a significant source of labour. Emiko, Anderson, other players and high ranking government officials come together in a story about basic human greed, corruption, cruelty and their consequences . There is redemption and tenderness in this story too, perhaps even room for a follow-up. I would very much like to see more of the authors vision of world and the Thai people after these events.
The Wind-Up Girl is set in a highly dystopian future. Global warming has flooded many of the world's major cities. The oil has run out, leading to a temporary hiatus in global expansion. Out of control genetic engineering has decimated crops, and destroyed whole species of animals.
As the novel opens, US companies are seeking to kick start growth once more by developing physical power sources and by finding resistant plant an animal strains. Thailand stands alone against this new economic imperialism with tightly controlled borders. However the edifice is cracking as forces which favour greater trade vie with fervent isolationists.
The dystopian feel is enhanced by the almost total lack of any sympathetic characters. It is difficult to identify with an aggressive American expansionist, his criminal sidekick, seeking to betray him, the facist Thai policeman, his two faced deputy. The list of unlikeable low lives is endless. At the heart of this maelstrom, and key to the fates of all is the wind-up girl, an artificially created Japanese concubine.
The Wind-up girl is clearly influenced by the early works of William Gibson, seeking to do with bio technology what Gibson did with cyberspace. The book is also reminiscent of Simon Morden's "Equations of Life" with a city torn apart by gradually escalating violence building to anarchistic destruction.
The Wind-Up girl is essentially an entertaining hi-tech thriller with a rapidly twisting plot. On the downside by the end it twists so many times it is in danger of disappearing up its own fundament. Also, some of the sexual scenes border on the exploitative, gratuitously graphically violent.
All in all, this is worth reading, as it does deliver that increasingly rare thing - originality.
on 23 June 2012
I have found it increasingly difficult over the last twenty years or so to find really good Science Fiction writers and books. I think I was spoiled by the golden age of Science Fiction story-telling, too used to writers like Isaac Asimov, Poal Anderson, Larry Niven and Ray Bradbury. There is a lot of dross out there now, fantasy tales that rely heavily of The Lord of the Rings or are derivative of various films and previous novels. When I saw the Windup Girl and read the blurb on the back my first though was "Huh, Blade Runner," but my son was looking for a SF novel set in the Far East so I bought two copies - one for me, one for him. And I was right - there are definite overtones of Blade Runner. But there the resemblance ends. This is a very, very good novel in its own right and offers the vision of a future dystopia that is all too believable. Having read Paolo Bacigalupi's biography I could see why. It is a novel with no real heroes or heroines in which the main characters operate from the basest of human desires and instincts but who, from time to time, do something because they know it is right thing to do. In a way this is a novel about the eternal struggle within us all - the struggle between our selfishness desires and our higher ideals, the place where we judge what is right and what is wrong and choose to either act upon it or not. But it is the background against which the novel is set that really elevates this into the realms of a really good read. The story is strong enough on its own but the description of a future Thai dystopia is both believable and incredibly rich. An excellent "first" novel - I look forward to seeing this author's future work.
on 25 February 2012
I started this book on a train journey and by the time I'd arrived at my destination I was half way through. Considering I only read at a decent speed when interested, that was a good sign! Though I hadn't warmed to any of the characters, the 'future' created by Bacigalupi was mesmerisingly 'real'. Having been to Bangkok and knowing a little of Thai history added a layer to my appreciation, and I must say I was hooked, though more in anticipation of further near-future tech. The author did a good job revealing details over time, always allowing for unanswered questions, which helped hold my attention and keep me interested. However, in the second half, I felt the novel flagging. I guessed the ending (and hoped against hope I was wrong, for I didn't want such a 'wet' conclusion); continued to dislike/feel ambivalent towards the characters, and grew tired of having to see the world from the four different view points of each main character. The political turmoil taking place in the background of the main events felt dull, and (as mentioned) the climax was frustrating. Having spent so long creating and working out his phenomenally detailed 'future', I couldn't help but think the author had just given up on crafting a plot to match. I was going to give this book five starts. Then three. So I've gone with four. It is certainly readable, and well written. You have a very clear sense of place, pulled straight to Bangkok of the future, fighting for it's independence from western-based calorie-companies. The title of the book needs (in my opinion) to be changed, as the windup girl herself doesn't play the significant role she needs to!!! There was also one graphic scene of sexual abuse that, though, I suppose, well written, didn't have much place within the novel. All in all worth looking at, but the plot does not hold up
on 22 January 2012
One of the finest novels published in 2009, Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Windup Girl" is a compelling dystopian future post-cyberpunk novel which vividly imagines a world coping with the worst effects of anthropogenic global warming and the rapid collapse of our petroleum-based civilization. His stark, quite vivid, portrait of 22nd Century Bangkok is one well steeped in realism and among the finest examples of world building published recently in science fiction. It's a near future world where humanity must rely almost exclusively on genetic engineering as a means of coping with the loss of plastics and other synthetic materials, creating not only new species of plants and animals, but also virulent diseases as deadly as Ebola virus for which cures may be nonexistent. A near future world where Thailand has become the hegemon of Southeast Asia, even if it is technologically backward compared with Japan and America. Bacigalupi weaves a most mesmerizing tale, introducing us to a compelling cast of anti-heroes, of which the most enigmatic is Emiko, the windup girl, one of the New People genetically engineered by the Japanese to become their society's domestic servants and soldiers, compelled against her will to serve the warring factions within Bangkok's Byzantine-like political elite. Her only hope of salvation is the American Anderson Lake, an AgriGen company man, who searches the food markets of Bangkok lfor fruits and vegetables from plants thought to be extinct, hoping to find new DNA to aid in his company's genetic engineering, while serving as the manager of the SpringLife factory near downtown Bangkok. His elderly assistant Hoeck Seng is among the few ethnic Chinese survivors of a Malayan genocide committed by its fundamentalist Muslim majority against the Chinese; one plotting to revive his family fortune in Bangkok by any means necessary.
Bacigalupi is a fine prose stylist in his own right, conjuring a gritty, realistic, view of a Bangkok protected by dikes and levees from the encroaching sea; a view so realistic that readers can vividly imagine the sweltering heat, the open air food markets, and the teeming masses of impoverished ordinary people whose lives differ little from those of their 20th Century ancestors. Without a doubt, Bacigalupi has written a most impressive literary achievement, a great novel of ideas and action, reaffirming science fiction's importance as a literary genre capable of producing not just great ideas but also high literary art. However, he may not be as graceful a literary stylist as William Gibson or China Mieville. For this very reason, some readers will regard his dystopian near future far less compelling than either Gibson's Sprawl or Mieville's New Crubozon, though I think his dystopian vision is as compelling as theirs. "The Windup Girl" was the 2010 recipient of both the Nebula and Hugo awards, two of the highest honors bestowed on science fiction literature. In his literary debut as a novelist, Bacigalupi has made a most auspicious start, demonstrating that he should be regarded as one of our finest contemporary American writers of science fiction.
I got to this without the hype - a novel in a pigeon hole from a colleague. A good weekend read lay ahead, and I must say I enjoyed this work very much indeed. As a serious sci-fi nerd I appreciate a well imagined, plausible (if not realistic) future scenario which plays to our current anxieties and concerns over climate change and genetically modified produce. Here they are part and parcel of the global crisis which sets the context to an intriguing study of resistance against a new `expansion' - a new era of greed led by large bio-tech corporations. The characterisation is good and compelling, the total collapse of a globalising, carbon driven trading economy, and the cultural and religious nuances well observed - there is a real classic feel to this, derivative of Dick and even Le Guan, thoughtfully recast to a big and compelling theme. Kink Springs, methane, carefully used and delineated. I did find however, that the book was too long - it petered out as the political crisis matured, and I found the end extremely disappointing. Not just because the windup is left without any real closure, but because the implicit logic of the end struck me as a sort of mindless endorsement of violence - the implication that AgriGen and the price of independence are worth the moral project of destroying the city: perhaps there is irony here, a sort of post-development, Escobarian dig at multinationals and social movements, but it seemed incomplete, poorly integrated: signs perhaps that this brilliant author has yet to pace himself for the longer novel. I am also curious at the environmentalist enthusiasm for this - science ficion is never about the future, actually. This sort of fiction sits in a sort of delicious temporal anomoly where are hopes and fears shape multiple versions of what might happen: is this a warning? AgriGen et al on one side, the sort of authoritarian sham religion of the Environmental Ministry on the other? I thoroughly recommend this to others to read and ponder.
on 10 May 2016
This is a truly tremendous book, describing a dank, post-apocalyptic Bangkok dripping and oozing with the biological debris of some unspecified genetic engineering catastrophe. Think William Gibson writing about biochemistry. That said, it's really not for the faint-hearted: the thoroughly-believable, flawed characters experience all manner of trials, described in the kind of slightly obsessive detail that makes for deeply unsettling reading at times. It's guaranteed to make you think a bit, but you might not always like what you're thinking about.
on 21 June 2010
It is rare to find an advertising blurb on a book that exactly captures your feelings about it. For this book the blurb compares it to William Gibson's 'Neuromancer' which is spot on, as this book could be the first of a new science fiction sub-genre. Like Neuromancer, it is set in the nearish future, but this future is very different from Gibson's.
It is set after the Contraction, which occured when the previous era, the Expansion (which is us), ran out of energy and resources. Rather then a new limitless virtual world, what we see here is the opposite: a resource-limited physical world, powered by muscle fed on staple foods, which have to be gene-hardened against a range of mutatated blights. Most live hand to mouth. All the old racial, national and religious fault lines have blown wide open again. Global warming still continues. The novel is set in Bangkok which is now below sea level and protected both by a ring of dams and the prayers of Buddhist monks.
Since the power infrastructure has gone, energy from muscle-power is stored in compressed springs. The novel opens in a factory making springs, and one sub-plot is the secret plan of its 'yellow card' immigrant Chinese manager to steal the blueprints for a revolutionary new type of spring. The factory is owned by an American food company. It, and a few other large companies, now 'own' the genotypes for staple foods. These companies are powerful enough to threaten nation states: Thailand preserves its independence by having a secret genetic seed bank and an ex-company gene hacker who can exploit it. Another sub-plot concerns a 'calorie man', an executive/spy working for a big American food company, whose cover is manager of the spring factory, but whose real assignment is to uncover the seed bank and its rogue hacker. The final sub-plot concerns the in-fighting between the Environment Ministry, who police energy and genetic misuse and the traditional security forces. The former are known as 'white shirts' and check for suspected genetic mutations, misuse of resources etc. Finally, the 'Windup Girl' of the title is a bar girl/prostitute. She is a product of Japanese genetic engineeering and not considered a real person at all. She moves in a jerky manner, hence her nickname. Through her all the main characters and sub-plots converge. It all ends badly.
This is not a cheerful novel (and neither was Neuromancer). But it brings the concerns of science fiction into sharp focus in a near(ish) dystopian future that looks all too likely. Unlike Gibson's vision, which was unrealistic, but poetic, this novel tries hard to be both realistic in style and in technology (the spring 'batteries' notwithstanding). The only thing lacking is a name for this novel's style - 'gene noir' maybe? For free tasters see the online stories 'The Yellow Card man' and 'The calorie man', which segue into this novel.
I don't read a lot of science-fiction (maybe five or so novels a year), but when I do, I tend to prefer works set in the relatively near-future, where the action mainly takes place on Earth. Having spent six weeks in Thailand a few years ago, this much-ballyhooed work set in Bangkok caught my attention and I thought I'd give it a whirl. The story takes place after "the Contraction", an era of global economic and ecological meltdown following the end of the petroleum-based economic system we currently are immersed in. In addition to rising sea levels (presumably due to global warming) which threaten to flood Bangkok, various killer viruses have spread across the global food supply chain, leaving giant GMO-based agribusinesses with virus-resistant grain product lines in positions of huge power. It's no longer Washington's shadow that falls heavily across the world, it's Des Moines'!
The main characters include Anderson (an industrial spy for an American agribusiness) Hock Seng (the manager of Anderson's front kinkspring manufacturing factory and a Chinese refugee from ethnic cleansing in Malaysia), Jaidee (a zealous and incorruptible Thai officer in the Ministry of Environment's enforcement army), and Emiko (the titular Japanese "windup girl" -- a genetically customized "new person" who is kept as a sex slave). The main thrust of the story is a contest for power between the Thai Ministry of the Environment, who is tasked with keeping the kingdom free of biological viruses, and the Thai Ministry of Trade, who naturally seeks to promote trade. The goals of the two ministries are at odds with each other, and the whole book is a long buildup to an inevitable showdown (and by extension, a rather transparent critique of capitalism).
Amidst this brewing conflict, Anderson is trying to scheme his way into getting access to the Thai kingdom's ultra-secure seed bank. Hock Seng is trying to scheme his way into long-term financial and personal security by stealing potentially breakthrough technology from the factory he managers. Jaidee is trying to live up to the oath he swore to protect the kingdom. And Emiko is trying to find a way out of her perpetual abuse. The psychology, backstories, and motivations of these, and all the other characters, is rich and convincing. Similarly, many of the details of the post-Contraction Bangkok are quite vivid and well-done, and it's easy to get immersed in the city (although some aspects doesn't make a ton of sense, like the lack of wind or solar energy). There's a strong element of the thriller that runs throughout it, along with some pretty good action sequences (and several exceedingly graphic scenes of sexual debasement and rape that are not for the faint of heart, but are very relevant to the plot).
And yet, despite all these positives, the book never really engaged me that much. It has a certain pacing problem that I can't quite put my finger on, but it often felt like it was taking too long to advance the story. The real kicker is that near the very end it starts to become very obvious that this is just the first installment of a series. That's particularly annoying because it would have been possible to end it in a way that would make it a satisfying stand-alone book, but there's more stuff tacked on as kind of a tease. I wish science-fiction and fantasy writers could take a page from mystery writers and learn how to write series where individual books can stand alone and not feel like incomplete segments of a trilogy.
on 7 May 2011
Sometime in the Future; Bagkok is surrounded by levees which hold back the ocean; skyscrapers are abandoned in an economy where electricity, coal and oil are in short supply. A mysterious "Child Queen" rules.
Genetic manipulation strives to stay ahead of biological plagues. Elephants have become "Megadonts",cats have become "Cheshires". Emilko, the "Windup girl", was bred to serve and amuse but, abandoned by her owner in a society hostile to her kind, she struggles to survive in a "porn club".
Hock Seng is likewise a survivor in a hostile society. He serves Anderson, one of a group of Western entrepreneurs seeking to make their fortunes in a determidly "isolationist" Thailand.
Officers of the Environment Ministry - especialy Jaidee of The White Shirts - are battling to quarantine the city against biological plagues, in conflict with the interests of Akkarat and the Ministry of Trade.
Their rivalry explodes when Anderson introduces Emilko to the Queen's Protector (Somdet Chagraya). Kanya of the White Shirts nurses a secret agenda....
After William Gibson's Idoru and Mona Lisa, I am looking forward to Bacigalupi's "Ship Breaker".