September 17, 2010

Book review: "The Windup Girl," by Paolo Bacigalupi

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The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup Girl
By Paolo Bacigalupi
Night Shade Books

As regular readers know, as I try to do every year, I've been attempting this summer and fall to read all the novels nominated for the 2010 Hugo Award, arguably the most important honorific in the entire science-fiction industry, with me being able to get through three of the four main frontrunners (Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, China Mieville's The City & The City, and Robert Charles Wilson's Julian Comstock) before the award was actually announced a few weeks ago in Melbourne, Australia; so how ironic, then, that it was the fourth unread title that ended up winning, Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, which only became available at my local library literally the day of its actual win. (Or actually, in a rare Hugo tie, the book shared winner status this year with The City & The City, but for simplicity's sake I'll be referring to it simply as the "winner" instead of "co-winner" for the remainder of today's essay. And of course, don't forget that there were technically two other nominees this year as well, both considered dark-horse contenders -- Catherynne M. Valente's Palimpsest and Robert J. Sawyer's Wake. And by the way, this not only won the Hugo but also the Nebula, Campbell and Locus Awards, the SF equivalent of winning the Triple Crown, plus was named one of the top ten books of last year by Time, Publishers Weekly and the Library Journal.) And indeed, if like me you view such awards as more important for the cultural history they record than for the quality of any particular title, then this win was a highly important one, because it's the first time the attendees of Worldcon* have officially acknowledged what's been a growing trend in SF in the last ten years -- the trend towards post-disaster novels set within so-called "third world" countries, which I suppose would actually be better called the "emerging world," since the former is a loaded phrase from the Victorian Age that's inherently insulting to a lot of people now, invented precisely as a way to justify the "monkey-worshipping heathens" of the world being colonized and brutally ruled by the "civilized white folk."

And in fact I'm becoming convinced more and more that this will be one of the biggest cultural trends that history will remember about the early 2000s in general; that even as some Westerners' irrational fear of such Muslim-dominated areas as Southeast Asia and the Middle East grows louder and more violent, a much larger amount of Westerners are instead growing fascinated with such countries in a positive way, and are voluntarily learning more and more about these nations as they finally climb their way for the first times in their histories into Industrial-Age status. I mean, this is certainly one of the main running themes of The Windup Girl -- set in Bangkok, Thailand a hundred years after the world ran out of oil, it mostly examines the relationships this nation has with such neighbors as Malaysia (which has been overrun by Taliban-style fundamentalist Muslims in this post-oil future), Burma (now a wasteland, due to a Cold-War-type proxy battle that was fought there by the dying superpowers), China (an unmanageable, radioactive land of anarchy and disease, since their nation-destroying civil war), Japan (a secretive, closed-off neo-tech utopia), and a lot more, with America only entering to the picture at all because of its occasional CIA-type crypto-colonist visitors from such new post-disaster metropolises as Des Moines, and with Europe virtually almost not even existing in Bacigalupi's intensely complex and interesting "Contraction Age" universe.

As you can tell, then, the actual storyline of The Windup Girl represents yet another growing trend within SF that the Hugo people have only officially acknowledged for the first time this year, a trend that I've covered in detail here in the last few years -- namely, the idea of an apocalypse occurring not quickly through nuclear war, but slowly through the gradual depletion of the world's last caches of fossil fuels (and the various natural and sociological disasters that would follow in such an event's wake), with the world that's left behind not the desert wasteland of Cold War literature but rather a landscape that looks remarkably like our own, only with the remnants of our modern peak-oil world (skyscrapers, highways) now abandoned and left to rot, and a cyberpunky infrastructure of ad-hoc shanties and huts being built up in these abandoned structures' shadows. And in this Bacigalupi does an astounding job of world-building (history-building?), creating a global civilization that was confronted with not one big disaster but an unending series of little ones to lead it to the state it's now in -- first the end of oil, then a series of global wars for the little oil left remaining, which leads to the widespread use of "genetic weapons" that literally mix with the genes of crops to ruin entire harvests, which then promptly spreads out of control until becoming a humanity-threatening worldwide food crisis, which leads to the rise not only of corporate agricultural companies as the world's new power-brokers (hence the shift in American money and prestige to the Midwest), but also of so-called "gene-ripper" secret agents hired by these companies, who comb the back alleys of the few places like Thailand that miraculously managed to survive all these previous disasters, attempting to steal and export the seeds and other genetic material of the non-poisonous produce found there, precisely so it can be replicated by these American ag companies and sold back to these Asian countries at an enormous profit, in Thailand's case through a shifting alliance between their Ministry of Environment (aka the "white shirts," the violent militia that used to burn entire villages when genetic poisoning was discovered there, and thus single-handedly kept the country from collapsing into the starvation-plagued chaos of their neighbors) and this ministry's sworn enemy, the similar Ministry of Trade (yet another violent militia that's been rapidly gaining power in a world that is finally starting to slowly stabilize again, who are known for making backroom deals with far-flung ag companies as a way of bringing global travel and communication back to the planet for the first time in decades). WHEW!

But of course this is all a big inelegant infodump I'm presenting here in my recap; Bacigalupi himself does a much better job at doling out this information in a slower and more entertaining way, delivering a modestly-sized yet textually dense manuscript that owes its success equally to such '80s authors as William Gibson and such contemporary ones as Ian McDonald, presenting one hell of a grandiose plotline that on top of everything else features Japanese cyborg geishas (the "windup girls" of the book's title), ice as a more precious commodity than liquor, entire factories run off the labor of genetically enhanced giant elephants, and so many more mindblowing details that it would take the entire rest of the day to describe them all. (And is it just me, or does Bacigalupi give a sly tip of the hat to Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age with his reference to genetically modified "chesire cats" that can literally disappear and reappear at will, apparently created by a rich industrialist in the previous century as a birthday present for his precocious daughter, but in the decades since have become an unstoppable feral scourge on the planet's various urban centers?) And mind you, this is with Bacigalupi also mixing in much of what's so fascinating about present-day Southeast Asia as well, part of what makes this vein of SF so appealing to so many curious Westerners these days, with our story as dependent on ancient religions and millennia-old social mores as it is on spring-powered dart guns and coal-fueled battle tanks.

Now that I've read it myself, it's easy to see why this was the 2010 Hugo nominee with perhaps the most passionate fanbase out of all of them, and I think it's very telling that it tied for the eventual win with a book also set in this general section of the world, and that also concerns itself mostly with non-Western themes and details. There's a real changing of the guard happening in the arts these days, and it's nice to see the SF community as always acknowledge it a little before the rest of mainstream society does; and just like Ursula K Le Guin's 1969 Hugo win for The Left Hand of Darkness, I think future generations are going to point to The Windup Girl's 2010 win as the moment everything started changing in the industry once again, the "tipping point" from the so-called "Dark Age" of the '80s and '90s to the so-called "Accelerated Age" of the '00s I've been calling it here at CCLaP. It's a stunner of a novel, one that easily deserves all the accolades it's been getting, and it comes highly recommended to all my fellow fanboys and fangirls out there.

Out of 10: 8.9, or 10 for science-fiction fans

Read even more about The Windup Girl: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*For those who don't know, it's the attendees of Worldcon who vote on the Hugo winners each year, with Worldcon itself actually a traveling event much like the Olympics, assigned each year to an already-existing SF convention somewhere else on the planet; and guess which city just got the winning 2012 bid a few weeks ago? That's right, it's Chicago! Needless to say, I'm very excited about this, and plan on maintaining a heavy presence at the 2012 Worldcon; among other things, I hope to line up a dozen or so interviews for that weekend, which I can then slowly dole out on the CCLaP Podcast over the remainder of that fall and winter, and also plan on organizing a special steampunk reading and costume photoshoot in Lincoln Park that will hopefully bridge Worldcon's attendees with Chicago's local literary community. If you'll be attending yourself and would be interested in helping out with the center's ambitious plans, by all means drop me a line at [cclapcenter (at) gmail.com]. Oh, I think I'm excited!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:06 PM, September 17, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |