Thursday, November 26, 2015

Review: The Windup Girl, by Paulo Bacigalupi

I never realized it before reading this novel, but what the world needs is a dystopia in the style of Graham Greene, where the sadness, secrecy, danger, ubiquity... the altogether oppressiveness of a failed social effort can be written up as the perfect pot to stew the uneasy moral gristle of the characters.  Greene, of course, had a knack for spotting these tired pockets of the real world, but your better science fiction is all about removing constraints like that, and it has a long history of creating sorry futures as a critique of political ideas.  It'd be a great marriage, is what I'm saying.

The Windup Girl is not that novel, for better or worse, but I will admit that I read a good third of it really wanting it to shape up as a new Quiet American.  The setting works: it's in a future southeast Asia, in a region historically resistant to imperialism, yet eternally dealing with the attempt, simmering with potential coups and clogged up with its own webs of loyalty, history, crime and general hardship.  Generations of resource depletion and biological capitalism have left humanity diseased and dependent, and in the Thailand of the story, have put subsistence living toe to toe with modernity.  We are also introduced early on to a character I wanted to read as a reinvented Alden Pyle.  Similarly named, Anderson Lake is likewise more of an interloper than a proper protagonist, who, along with the boozy expats of his acquaintance, doesn't quite jibe with the culture.  He's in truth a powerful political agent, a fact belied by his willingness to risk himself within the intrigues of Thai society.  He takes a possessive interest in a local woman, and, well, even if that's as far as the similarities go, you can at least see why I was rolling with this.

But the cracks start early.  We're in Lake's mind from the beginning of the book, and it doesn't take long for the his schemes to be revealed, in context, as probably malignant.  Nor is there any allegorical love triangle here.  Emiko may be a trophy object but, well, she's not Thai for one thing (not even Japanese, strictly speaking), and more importantly, she is a challenging individual in her own right.  There is overall too much action, too many characters, and not the right kind of internal space to really qualify as a Greene knockoff.  It's not a tenuously drawn inner balance, this novel, it's the usual point-of-view plot mosaic.

Bacigalupi imagines a world where food sources have been monopolized by a handful of "calorie companies," modern-day Monsantos who have long since succeeded in suppressing local agriculture in exchange for imports or rights to grow non-propagating proprietary strains that the companies sell.  (It's the American Midwest extrapolated to a global hellscape.)  It's not spelled out whether the succession of plagues that have further eradicated old species and leveled the human population were intentionally waged by the calorie companies, or whether they were a result of tempting the world's fate with highly engineered monoculture.  In any case, the political arms of the companies actively seek out what biodiversity is left, with an aim to develop it (no doubt with similar results down the line), and keep the business one step ahead of the next pandemic.  Thailand has made it this far by vicious containment measures, and a rumored pet scientist.  The nation has also maintained an old seed vault in the capital that Anderson Lake wants very much to negotiate. 

The detail of this sorry world is very well drawn out, and the author has really done a good job in fleshing out a location for its conflicts, and selecting characters to witness it from different angles.   This Bangkok seethes with people and squirms under the weight of history.  There is a languor to the city that comes from more than the jungle climate, it's heat, fatalism, decay, a struggle that's more necessary than hopeful. The impact of global scourge and dearth of kilowatt-hours is so effectively shown that I kept noticing the times it was told.  (My only mild complaint about this book is that he uses just a hair more neologisms than I felt were necessary.)

Most things are windup in this world.  The earth has been so poorly used that hand-crank power has become the ubiquitous poor-man's alternative to carbon.  However, Emiko (the girl of the title) isn't throwback tech, she's been made to have jerky toy-like motions.  Emiko is an engineered person, a New Person in the book's language, one who has been bred, altered, and conditioned from birth for a role as a high-end courtesan.  Not just with the creepy doll motions, she's genetically predisposed to obey and please, to seek male guidance, and what the hell, that's three novels in a row (not to mention a tv show) now where subservience is governed by sci-fi technicalities, and although it's gotten under my skin, Emiko's arc is quite satisfying in this story, because this is a girl whose mind has a slim chance of conquering her genetic tendencies.  This far from removed the microcosm for which she's been designed, obedience has treated her poorly.  Abandoned by her old patron and forced into a lesser life of prostitution, in an unsuitable physical environment, she wants safety in Anderson Lake, and that is something her world will also probably not allow. 

A spoiler here, but among the many plot whorls, a new disease has been simmering in Lake's business front, an entirely natural one.  It is managed with the scientific tools at hand, but not before it gets Lake.  Emiko (and new people in general) are resistant to it, and, we gradually learn, often have other strengths, provided the bullshit low-status-signifying mods can be weeded out (or gradually bred out, or can somehow provide into an ecological advantage).  It's heavily suggested that these new organisms are the future of the planet, and our true legacy.  The fact that the disease strain evolved from a natural mutation (i.e., not engineered and as a random element to the plot) is significant, and we're offered a question here about the nature of nature.  Is human meddling an affront against nature or is it an aspect of it?  Most of us prefer the anthropocentric answer, that we're the end result of evolution, and that we have some relationship with the biological world.  But the honest answer is that we're part of the process that has no goal, and in the book, all our activity has been the kind of catastrophe that increases speciation (and the earth's had a few).


switters said...

"But the honest answer is that we're part of the process that has no goal..."

Money shot. Your review sent me to my list of (recent) movies/tv shows where AI is explicitly the/our next "step", but do it artfully enough for robot evolution to seem almost realistically inevitable.

AI, BSG (Shut up!), Ex Machina...

Hmm. I swear the list seemed longer in my head. Somewhat tangential to your piece, but that's where it took me. Sorry.

Great review. And a belated Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. I've "known" you for 10 years and am very glad of it.

Keifus said...

Ten years, ain't it the weirdest thing? Thank you. I'm glad of it too, and best to you and yours as well.

(I can't make a better list for film, and I still haven't even seen Ex Machina. (I have been getting ready for the new Star Wars flick, and sometimes I like to imagine a droid revolution is brewing in that universe.))

Inkberrow said...

"Blade Runner" meets "Our Man In Havana", sorry, "Bangkok"?

Science alienates and frightens me, but this review is masterfully written.

Keifus said...

Thanks, man.