Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Windup Girl

by Paolo Bacigalupi

I had been hearing great things about this book since it came out in September of 2009. And the buzz only continued to grow as it won both the Hugo and Nebula for best novel in 2010. It also seems to appeal to people that do not normally read science fiction and even made Time magazine's top ten fiction books in 2009. Sometimes a book with all that buzz just cannot live up to its billing but I was really wowed by Windup Girl.

The story is set at some time in the future in Bangkok Thailand, after oil has run out, the sea levels have risen and plagues have decimated the world's food supply. Methane made from animal dung lights the street lamps and cook fires and kink-springs are used to power everything from boats and factories to guns. Computers are powered by the individual pedaling away at the treadles and bioengeniered beasts called Megodonts (as pictured on the cover) do the heavy labor. The primary means of transportation are sailing ships and dirigibles. While this may make it sound like a steampunk novel, I didn't really get that vibe from it, but I am no steampunk expert. My favorite part of the novel was the extraordinary future Bangkok, with sky scrapers built during the Expansion now crumbing and overcome with vines since electricity is gone but filled with people.

The primary interest of the novel is genetic engineering both of the food supply and of people and animals. Much of the food supply is tainted and has become deadly to eat while calorie companies control the food supply of genetically engineered crops. Engineered animals, such as the Cheshire cats that shimmer in and out of sight like the one from Lewis Carol's Wonderland, have almost obliterated all of the natural species. And the calorie men search for original genetic plant material to work their gene hacking magic. The Windup Girl of the title is a genetically modified humanoid created by the Japanese as a companion, secretary and translator for a wealthy businessman who abandoned her in Thailand where "New People" are illegal.

While the characters were fully developed and interesting and the plot was complex and fascinating, what I loved most about the story was the way the reader is just dropped into this complex world and allowed to slowly figure it out. To me the city of Bangkok is the main character and the large themes are the main plot devise. It is not preachy in any way but the author manages to create a frightening world that in light of our current state of affairs seems not really that far fetched. It certainly has made me look at "calories" in a new light.

The publisher, Night Shade Books, currently has free downloads of "Windup Stories" which contains two stories that are set in the same world as The Windup Girl, The Calorie Man and Yellow Card. I enjoyed reading them, especially since I understand that The Calorie Man was the genesis of The Windup Girl. I would however recommend reading the book first as it fully immerses you in this world and I think better prepares you to appreciate these stories.

And if you need more convincing here are some reviews from Cory Doctorow , SF Signal.

I read this as part of Carl V's Sci Fi Experience.

No comments: