Visions of Paradise

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Windup Girl

There are several sub-genres of f&sf I do not enjoy, which I guess makes me similar to most other fans. Military science fiction. Urban fantasy. Near future dismal. However, there are some writers in each sub-genre who appeal to me in spite of their unfortunate choice of sub-genre. I read a David Weber “Honor Harrington” novella which was so good it has me wanting to read one of his novels. Charles de Lint is one of my favorite fantasy writers, even though he writes squarely in the middle of urban fantasy (in fact, to some extent he invented the sub-genre).

Near future dismal has not appealed to me since William Gibson popularized it in the early 80s with the ascent of cyberpunk. In fact, a large portion of American science fiction from the 1980s and 1990s bored me because it was obsessed with how dull and depressing the near-future could be. Thank heavens for the space opera revival in the pages of Interzone in the 1990s and writers such as Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter who breathed new life into the sf genre.

But there is still a large undercurrent of near future dismal being published. Ian McDonald has written several highly-acclaimed novels in that sub-genre, such as River of Gods, Brazyl and recently The Dervish House. I haven’t read any of them, but I’ve read several of his shorter pieces set in the India of River of Gods and, while they are very well-written, I still find them somewhat boring.

So along came Paolo Bacigalupi a few years ago with his own version of a dismal near future. The first story of his I read was “The Fluted Girl,” which was so good I put it on my best-of-the-decade list. But he followed it with less interesting stories such as “The People of Slag and Sand,” “The Calorie Man” and “The Yellow Card Man.” None of those stories particularly appealed to me.

Then in 2010 he released his first novel The Windup Girl, which not only received near-universal acclaim, but won the Nebula Award and tied for the Hugo Award with China Miéville’s excellent The City & The City. Around the same time I read his novelette “Pump Six,” title story of his first collection, and I found it very enjoyable. Still near future dismal, but his plotting and sense of wonder carried the story. His vision of a future Columbia University was worth the entire story.

So recently I decided to read The Windup Girl, and I have been very pleased with it. Its setting is dismal, but the characters are not the typical bunch of depressed, amoral losers. They are people who are dealing with their situation in the best way possible, aggressive rather than lethargic, overall moral , although that morality is often affected by their circumstances rather than traditional morality.

The novel is set in Thailand, one of the few Third World countries whose economy has survived in the face of the worldwide economic collapse, due partly to the petroleum economy’s failure. There are a handful of main characters, each representing a different aspect of that country’s populace:

• Anderson Lake is a white foreigner who represents AgriGen, an international which has filled in part of the corporate gap following the collapse of petroleum. He runs a factory which is producing spring-generated energy using giant megodonts, which are artificially-grown elephant-like creatures, until one of the megodonts goes rogue and destroys the factory;

• Emiko is a windup-girl, an artificially grown person designed to serve masters totally and unquestioningly, sort of geishas when in Japan, but in Thailand she becomes an abused prostitute.;

• Jaidee is the Tiger of Bangkok, an idealistic yet brutal enforcer of the White Shirts who works for the Environment Ministry keeping foreigners and other exploiters under control. However, his division is in deadly conflict with the Trade Ministry, whose only concern is bringing foreign trade into the country, and who consider Jaidee a major obstacle to their plans;

• Kanya is Jaidee’s dependable but dour assistant who keeps secrets which threaten to become a hindrance to his mission;

• Hock Seng is a yellow card man, a foreign national who lives in Thailand without being a citizen. He manages Anderson’s factory, but neither totally trusts the other, and each realizes the other has a private agenda unknown to him.

The first half of the novel mostly explores the lives of the main characters, and their interrelationships with each other and with other important characters: General Pracha, Jaidee’s superior at the Environment Ministry; Akkarat, the head of the trade ministry; Richard Carlyle, another foreigner who works undercover for Akkarat. But the novel really takes off when Trade decides to remove Jaidee’s influence and take control of the country themselves.

Even Even if you, like me, dislike near future dismal sf, The Windup Girl is a taut, well-plotted character-based novel which aroused my sense of wonder even in the most depressing setting. I can see why it won so many awards and, along with The City & The City, it was indeed the best sf novel of 2010.


  • One of my best friends tells me that Paolo uses a style similar to Frank Herbert's. He tells me that Paolo likes to tell you what is going on in the character's mind. Do you see the similarity?

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 7:00 PM  

  • yes, he definitely gets into the thoughts of his point of view character for each chapter, which he does well enough that it is very effective in developing his characters.

    i can't say enough good things about this book, which says a lot about it since i am typically adverse to near-future dismal. it is definitely worth reading.

    By Blogger adamosf, At 6:08 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home