on 24 July 2010
I am one of the `Malayan Chinese' as depicted in this novel, and I am simply astonished at how real and accurate Bacigalala's grasp and hold of the socio-political undertones of Thailand and the Malaysian Chinese are in this novel. Many times I find myself flipping to the front to check the author's name to see if he really isn't Asian and then to the tiny write-up of himself to see if he lived in Asia for decades. Iowa born. Hmmm.....
Lot's of great dystopian lit out there, but this one really hit home for me simply because of its Asian setting. Could actually picture dystopian Bangkok all around me as I read this book.
Ok constructive rascist views aside, this book is one of the best pieces of dystopic science fiction I have ever read, my other favorite being Dune (by the original Frank Herbert). I'm usually not one to pounce on new unheard of authors, but I came onto this having just finished Bagicalalala's YA novel Ship Breaker which blew me away (and is not in an Asian setting but in the Gulf of Mexico). I started the book with the presumption that this was no way going to be better than Ship Breaker. But the book proved me wrong 15 minutes in. An exciting, thrilling, dystopic romp to the finish. I am hungry for more Bacgialala now.
Why the hell is it taking till December for paperbacks of Pump Six (his short story collection) to be released?!??!!!! I simply can't afford the hardcover versions going for $400 over at the moment!!!!
Congratulations for being my new number one author farang Paolo. Hurry up and show us what else is in your imagination.
on 16 October 2011
I really enjoyed this book. I was a bit worried in the past I've found highly rated books very disappointing. However I read this book late into the night and have lost sleep over it working my way through it.
There are two ways to look at this book. One level it's a violent and disturbing near future SciFi book. A second way to look at is the corruption and greed of western capitalism.
In the near future the oil has run out, global warming has run riot and multiple genetic experiments have gone horribly wrong or been used as deliberate weapons of war on a global scale. A corrupt worker from a "Calorie" company has been sent to Thailand to find out what is going on there - they are fiercely independent and not dependent of imported sterile seeds from the big western Calorie companies.
The story follows the lives of a number of interlinked individuals as events take over and change the lives of all the characters beyond their wildest imagination. The narrative flips from character to character's view point which takes a bit of time to get use to but seems to work well.
The book is very dark in places, violent and disturbing. However it really is just a mirror to our own greed and selfish nature. Like many fantastic books being set "elsewhere" allows the author to disuse very real and serious issues that affect us today.
on 9 February 2012
Most science fiction falls into one of two camps. The first consists of poorly-written, plot-driven page turners that are like McDonalds Happy Meals - satisfying to eat but you feel cheated afterwards. The second is aiming rather higher, aspiring to be literary fiction, but normally falling short and failing to deliver much of a story either - a bit like "nouvelle cuisine", with its dainty portions that hardly add up to a decent mouthful.
Here we have a book that manages to fall into both camps with resounding success. First, it's incredibly well-written. The prose is evocative without being florid, the register is infallible, and structurally it's like a Breuget timepiece. Politically it's very interesting - the relationships between the various tribal and ethnic factions in the book are entirely credible and persuasive. Although it's set in Thailand, where all but three or four of the main characters have non-Anglicised names, I never once struggled to remember who was who. But it's the story that is the main thing - part love affair, part political thriller, part dystopian nightmare, part pure speculative fiction. I really couldn't put it down, and I'm sure that Bacigalupi will go on to write even better, more intense books than this. I, for one, can't wait. For me, his only rival is Iain M Banks, and that's very high praise from me.
on 11 April 2016
A brilliant dystopian novel, set in a near-future Bangkok after the impact of climate change, peak carbon (oil and coal), and the unleashing of genetically modified crop diseases by seed companies to strengthen their monopolies over food. A fabulous detailed and nuanced portrayal of an utterly plausible future world, complete with springs as an energy store, genetically modified elephants as a source of motive power, 'new people' created as a servant class, and lots more. Great the way it allows the future dystopia to have rough edges...corruption, ethnic conflict, bribery, tensions between different government agencies...so often dystopias seem to imagine a state entity that's perfectly efficient. This is the opposite. By the time I'd finished this I felt like I'd made a major discovery, though I seem to have come late to this particular party. It felt a bit like discovering William Gibson - well, I came late to that party too.
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 27 June 2016
Complex and fascinating. Yes I can see how some folks may have given up early but they have missed a gem by doing so. There is a complicated plot to build, a dark future to explain, many characters and sub plots to develop before the actions starts.Add the differences in cultures and for the Westerner there is a lot to take on board. This just makes it richer and more satisfying. Be patient and you will be rewarded. My only criticism is that I imagined a showdown with the windups, a little more hand to hand combat would have been the icing on the cake for me but it is still a definite 5 stars
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.
on 14 June 2012
Chekov once observed that, `If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.' In The Windup Girl, an entire armoury is carefully hung on the wall in the first half of the book. In the second half, much of the tension derives not from wondering whether tragedy will befall 22nd century Bangkok, but how this will come about. It says much about The Windup Girl that the onrushing apocalypse - not the fate of its characters - provides the main narrative drive.
The Windup Girl's world is one devastated by overpopulation, environmental damage and resource depletion; readers familiar with the 'biopunk' subgenre of science fiction will recognise elements of the book's premise. Early in the 22nd century, fossil fuels are all but exhausted, genetically-modified plagues and catastrophic climate change have destroyed much of the world's farmland, and calories are the new currency in this climate of scarcity. Mid-Western `calorie companies' control much of the supply, locked in an arms race with the plagues unleashed by their competitors. The protagonist, Anderson, is a company man, undercover as a venture capitalist, attempting to exploit the Thai elite's scheming and power struggles to lay his hands on the country's seedbank. He encounters the titular windup girl near the start of the book, a genetically-modified geisha kept captive in a brothel. Their affair goes on to precipitate chaos in Bangkok.
Bacigalupi deserves credit for creating a vivid, well-realised setting. Every turn of the page reveals a thought-provoking new detail of his unhappy world. By confining the action to Bangkok he creates an atmosphere of claustrophobia and of being buffeted by external events which perfectly suit the book. It is clearly a city he is familiar with; the asides on Thai culture and several characters' matter-of-fact Buddhism add further interest. Unfortunately, The Windup Girl's foreground does not do justice to its fascinating background. The dialogue can be heavy-handed, with many of the scenes of passion, politicking and confrontation falling flat. Anderson, the protagonist, in particular is a cipher for the plot rather than a believable character. Why would a hardened company man fall so sentimentally for a geisha? Why would a seasoned negotiator prove so clumsy at navigating Bangkok's poisonous politics? The narrative becomes bogged down in the middle third of the book, and whilst the climax is suitably spectacular, many previous plot strands appear forgotten or irrelevant. The denouement may leave readers scratching their heads rather than gaping in awe.
The Windup Girl is still an entertaining read and fine example of the biopunk subgenre. It could have been even better, had less attention been paid to Chekov's guns on the wall and focused instead on the characters who would shortly be duelling with them.
on 13 January 2016
A very interesting read. I loved all the back story and the world-building. Thought the Bangkok setting was fascinating. I used to live in Bangkok and I have to say, author captured the flavour of the city perfectly. The future Bangkok he envisages was perfectly believable for me, the sights, the smells, and yes the heat.
And the future world he has created was thought-provoking. Who knows where genetically modifying crops will lead us? What climate change will bring? What havoc avaricious western agricultural corporations will wreck? In some ways it reminded me of Atwood's Oryx & Crake - not a bad thing as it's a great book. But there's more: genetically modified humans, protectionism versus free trade, political infighting in Thailand, pogroms against ethnic minorities...
Author uses a lot of Thai transliterations - not a problem for me, but just to let you know.
An inventive book - relevant to today. Enjoyed it even if it made uncomfortable reading.