Monday, October 12, 2009

The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books, 2009)

Many wonderful and horrible people, events, and ideas are woven together into this compact novel set in Thailand in a not-so-distant future after the present-day oil-based economy has burned itself out. Humanity’s downward spiral is rendered in all its pain and frustration through a variety of viewpoint characters, against a backdrop of a population that has been ravaged by plague after plague, political upheaval, hunger, and untrustworthy food. Filling the void left by oil is a new calorie-based economy, where muscle power and agricultural production are all that remain to keep humanity fed and industry moving.

The viewpoint characters are variously motivated by patriotism, opportunism, or mere survival. Each, as they pursue their goals, sows the seeds of violence, corruption, and exploitation. The novel is at its best showing characters making choices in moments of desperation, characters such as Hock Seng and the eponymous Emiko, who have been frightened and driven to extremes not just for a day, or for a few days, but year after year.

(From here forward there will be spoilers.)

Hock Seng, an ethnic Chinese by way of Malaya, was once a successful business man. He was traumatized by a revolution in Malaya and the brutal killings of his wives and children. He fled to Thailand (here called the Thai Kingdom) and exists only by sufferance, relegated to Yellow Card status. He manages a kink-spring factory for a foreign owner. Kink springs are wound by human or animal muscle power, capturing the energy for later use like a battery. He embezzles from the kink-spring factory as a matter of course. Because he keeps most of the money intended to bribe port authority officials, crucial new equipment is lost, which dooms the kink-spring factory that is his source of lively hood. Fraught with paranoia, mostly justified as it turns out, Hock Seng stashes his money inside the walls of his tiny apartment while preparing for the worst.

Emiko, the windup girl, is a genetically modified Japanese courtesan, abandoned by her employer when he returned to Japan. She has no documentation to allow her to stay in the Kingdom of Thai, and no means to leave. As a windup, also called the New People, she is considered not quite human and she has no status or rights. She survives as best she can working in a sex club, valued for her exoticism. She is abused on stage for entertainment.

Some readers will feel that the sexual abuse and physical suffering depicted with such intensity in the story is pornographic in nature. I am sympathetic to that point of view, yet I side with the author, who has chosen to show the erosion of our future prospects and the degradation of our environment through its effect on people. We are standing by and we are complicit, while our planet is being abused and ravaged. What better way to make this more immediate to the reader than to provide characters to personify the humiliation?

If this sounds overly serious or unpleasant, I would maintain, instead, that it is unblinking and trenchant. It refuses to let the reader off the hook for the bleak future that we appear to be stumbling headlong toward. The characters that Bacigalupi creates are the necessary intermediaries, making the situation more real seeming and lived in, and by their ability to move forward with their lives, provide an element of grace against dire events.

The masterful extrapolation of the future builds upon the excellent work the author has already done at shorter length in “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man.” Both stories are available in Bacigalupi’s first collection, Pump Six (Night Shade Books, 2008). Emiko recalls, in some ways, “The Fluted Girl” in the same collection.

There is a lot to think about and argue with in this book. The calorie-based future is innovative and well-thought out, and frightening in showing how far technology has narrowed without oil. Agriculture is dominated by large Des Moines-based companies that sell sterile, enhanced seeds throughout the world, where disease-ridden crops fail without the latest tweak to fend off genetic warfare. Long range transportation has regressed to dirigible and clipper ship.

Some issues the author has left for the reader to work out. For instance, how much of Emiko’s willingness to submit to degradation is built into to her artificial nature, how much is the result of the obedience training she received, and how much is simply a practical choice in response to her circumstances?

The ending offers plenty to think about, too. An old genetic scientist comes out of hiding and offers hope for Emiko’s unborn children: a faster, smarter, better people to succeed us.

One apparent oversight: How likely is it that no-one suspects that her windup nature allows Emiko to “over-clock” her speed when in danger, when this must be a significant feature of the windup soldiers referenced in the text? She over-heats quickly, like an over-clocked CPU, limiting the duration of her speed-boost.

So much is done right that there is reason to celebrate. The economics and politics, expressed through the lives of the characters rather than as lectures, open out in ever-more complicated vistas. The fictionalized future Thai Kingdom is full of life, with new sights, sounds, and flavors around every corner. Bacigalupi's first novel, this is easily one of the best science fiction novels of the year.

Links related to The Windup Girl:
Sci Fi Wire review: John Clute
SF Signal review: Jason Sanford
Publisher: Night Shade Books

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