Wednesday, April 07, 2010

JD's Take: The Windup Girl (Paulo Bacigalupi)

You might as well learn to pronouce that name. Although he has been around for a few years making quite a name for himself with short stories, this is his debut novel and it made for his 5th Hugo and 3rd Nebula nod, so it's not just me who thinks it was pretty damn good. He's young, talented, getting noticed, and I expect to see a whole stack of books with his name on the spine on my bookshelf in the coming years. Oh crap, I just gave away the conclusion of the review. Oh well, I shall press forward regardless!

What impressed me most about the novel was the world building. That's a phrase that is usually reserved for fantastic planets circling distant stars, with unknowable aliens populating them and strange religions pulling the strings. I use it quite deliberately in that sense, even though the story is set in a nearish future version of Thailand. This Thailand is set in an Earth whose global economy was annihilated not so long ago by a sudden and drastic oil crisis, leading to each nation (or smaller entity) contracting in on itself and readjusting. Around that same time, advances in genetic engineering made it possible for powerful agricultural companies to release plagues into the wild designed to destroy food crops around the world. This made it possible to corner huge markets with custom engineered staple crops that were immune to the plagues and sterile. Against that background each country struggles to remain independent of the agricultural companies, to improve their generipping abilities to create new foods, to gather and maintain seed banks of precious plants that can no longer survive in the wild. Bacigalupi does a great job of extrapolating this world, subtly changing everything from transit to weaponry to cooking. This Thailand has lost nearly every source of plant food. There are only a couple kinds of tree that can resist the GE beetles roving the landscape and only a few crops that they've managed to keep ahead of the rapidly mutating plagues that blight the land.

The people of this novel live in a world that is alien to our own, but echoes with elements of the world we know. They live in the skeleton of our world, but in stark contrast to books of the post-apoc genre (a label that I would have great difficulty applying to this book despite the fact that it takes place after an apocalypse) they are learning to thrive in it. They engineer crops to stay one step ahead of the constantly mutating plagues, they engineer specialized animals to power factories where they produce the kink-springs that power everything from radios to motorcycles. They create police forces dedicated to stopping the spread of human-vector plagues at any cost, they create networks of methane pipes to heat homes, provide light, and cook. Their religions have mutated to match the challenges of their world, and these too feel alien and strangely familiar. It's a wonderful setting, one that surprises and grounds the reader in equal degree. By setting this book in Thailand, Bacigalupi makes the people seem exotic and surprising without being unknowable.

Moving away from the world, which I've already spent far too much time on! The characters are nuanced and interesting! They have resources that aren't immediately apparent, they grow and change and learn. They are well varied, and they all act consistent with their character. The story is interesting and unfolds in sometimes surprising ways, branching suddenly and changing the plans of everyone (and the expectations of the reader). It also defies genre. It is science fiction certainly, but with a fantastic element or two. Post-apoc without any of the conventions of that genre. Not urban fantasy despite being very urban and having fantasy elements. Not steampunk despite the propogation of spring-and-gear powered everything and methane lights. Go in with an open mind... this was an excellent read and I highly recommend it!

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