Monday, August 8, 2011

The Wind Up Girl: A Review

Paolo Bacigalupi hit paydirt with his first published novel, The Windup Girl.  Described as a biopunk science fiction novel,  it is something of a slow-crash everything-but- the-kitchen-sink apocalypse with a heavy emphasis on peak oil, and the dangers of biotechnology (and big-Ag) run amuck.  It is set in the 23rd century, but the collapse has been so severe that the technology is understandable and relevant to our own perspective. 

The novel won both of the big Sci-Fi ones, the Hugo and the Nebula.  The closest novel that can easily compare is William Gibson’s cyberpunk mega-hit (could be said to have started the genre) Neuromance.  In allusion to Gibson, the author goes so far as to name his Biotech mastermind Gibbons (Gi Bu Sen).  This influence was confirmed in a an interview.
Lev Grossman, Techland, 27 September 2010.
Lev: I'm curious how much of an influence on you William Gibson has been. When I went looking for an analog to the sense of shock I felt the first time I read Windup Girl, the obvious answer was reading Neuromancer.
Paolo: Oh, yeah. I grew up reading Gibson. I'm a huge fan of his writing. I remain addicted to his writing. I know that when I was writing my first short story, "Pocket Full of Dharma," that cyberpunk flavor of things was very much in my mind, in that Gibson style. That language, and lushness, and sort of that grittiness of the world was something that was something really interesting to me.
I emulated it too well, as it turned out. Because when I had that story workshopped by Elizabeth Hand, she was like, “cyberpunk's dead. Just so you know. You need you need to de-cyberpunk this story in order to make it actually sellable”. That was the first time that I'd ever understood that there were actually really trend lines in science fiction as a genre, and slices of genre within science fiction.
And then frankly, he was the guy who kind of sent me off in the direction of writing short stories, because he had told me that's how he'd gotten started.
The novel uses a shifting first person point of view.  The characters chosen are very driven, strong characters. These characters appear to reflect the authors own personal philosophy.  In the same interview, when discussing the extended effort that was required to even get a novel published, little less be successful:
Paolo: …I did make one foray into the literary fiction thing at one point, when I was still writing novels that weren't selling. This is sort of back story. I wrote four novels that I never sold before I wrote The Windup Girl. So I've been writing for, now, it's been about 15 years. I guess it was 13 when I sold The Windup Girl…

I think of it in terms of the people who have the ability to go through the try, fail, learn cycle. You have to be able to take that again and again. And those failure moments, you have to go, OK, why did I fail? What did I learn from this? How can I reapply this and go again?
And I feel like it doesn't get talked about, that idea that nobody accidentally gets published. You don't accidentally fall into writing a novel. Just the process of actually writing a novel is too damn hard for anybody to accidentally fall into it. And if somebody says, "yeah I just did it," they're probably lying. They wanted it and they went after it is what they did. You don't write it, get it sent out, take the agent rejections, take the editor rejections, all those different layers, without having something real powerful driving you inside….

Discipline comes from within, not from without. I think of it as being, there are those people who are waiting for the thing to arrive, and then there's people who are going out and making it. I think about it as almost theft. You almost have to steal the book from the rest of your life. There are so few things that are going to support you in the process of writing a book. There's always more child care. There's always some emergency that has to happen. There's always some reason why, you know, you have a deadline at your regular job and so you have to stay up late, and you can't get your writing done. If you're going to write it's always stolen from somebody else's time, or some other responsibility.
Apparently it is not a complete accident that science fiction writers tend to have a libertarian streak.
The story is set in Thailand.  This is not a stunning choice of countries as Thailand was the only country on the mainland of the Far East that was able to avoid rule or control by the Western Colonial powers.  For those who remember the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I, it was set in Siam (Thailand) in the 1860s, with the King hiring an English governess for his children because he wished to educate them well enough in Western ways, so that their country might avoid entrapment and servitude.  The King was ultimately successful.
In this novel, the primary external threat comes from the demands of the biotechnology firms wanting to come into Thailand hand spread their influence.  They specialize in one-use seeds that are immune to the many crop diseases (possible spread by themselves), but must be replenished at price every year.  They are the plundering robber barons of the day.  You do not see much of the companies directly, but their agents are at work.
The other thread is one of internal arguments and factions, at different levels of government and business who cannot stop their own infighting long enough to rally against the (many greater) threats.
While the novel is set far into the future, there is immediacy to the situation.  It is not technology as magic.  Some of what they have is very advance, but without the use of fossil fuels, they are also behind us in many other ways. The world is just starting to put itself back together:  just a little bit. 
Overhead, the towers of Bangkok’s old Expansion loom, robed in vines and mold, window long ago blown out, great bones picked clean.  Without air conditioning or elevators to make them habitable, they stand and blister in the sun.  The black smoke of illegal dung fires wafts from their pores, marking where Malayan refugees hurriedly scald chapattis and boiled kopi before the white shirts can storm the sweltering heights and beat them for their infringements (p7)…
The world truly is shrinking again.  A few dirigible and clipper rides and Anderson clatters through darkened streets on the far side of the planet.  It’s astounding. In his grandparent’s time, even the commute between an old Expansion suburb and a city center was impossible. His grandparents used to tell stories of exploring abandoned suburbs, scavenging for the scrap and leavings of whole sprawling neighborhoods that were destroyed in the petroleum Contraction.  To travel ten miles had been a great journey for them…(p114).
The world is changing, and the theme of change is constant at all levels, throughout.   Perceived conditions change in a blink.  Plans go awry.  Major characters get themselves killed, thrusting lesser characters into the limelight.
One character:
I was asleep.  All along I was asleep and never understood….Nothing lasts forever.
A kuti [monk’s quarters] is a cell.  A cell is a prison.   He sits in a prison…Nothing is permanent…All is change; change is the only truth. (p168).
And another
And now it is the same.  A sudden eruption, and the surprise of realizing that the world he understands is not the one he actually inhabits. (p187).
Coming out of a world of contraction, people tend to be very competitive, and very brutal.  There is no economic surplus to round out the rough edges of conflict.  Anything gained by one person, or one group, will come at the expense of someone else.  People, by our standards, are not very nice.  The bad guys are horrid, the good guys corrupt.  It is not a cozy.  In an age of great plagues to both food sources, and people, the ability to survive on one’s own merit, is somewhat limited.  More importantly, a recovery into a dystopia does not have the warmth and fuzziness required.
The novel has a fair amount of predatory and graphic sex and sexuality so it is not for the faint of heart.  It is not even remotely YA.  Interestingly, his Ship Breaker, which I have not read yet, is directed at a YA audience.
The novel is an excellent story at many levels.  It is both a warning at a greater level, and a philosophy on action during times of confusion and crises.  Even though many of the characters are central to the key events, they typically have a very limited idea of what is going on.  Planning is good, but the ability to adjust and react quickly is better.  An awareness to changes around you is very strongly emphasized;  it is possibly the most important survival skill.
It is odd that a novel set so many years in the future,  would have so many  relevant lessons for survival today.  Given the caveat that it has very adult content,  it is one of the novels here I would recommend the most.
Paolo Bacigalupi


Netherland said...

The Windup Girl is a great post-apocalyptic novel about a world where genetic manipulation has backfired into plagues that have almost wiped out the human race and much of the natural world. Bacigalupi has painstakingly created a vocabulary for this culture with words that sound realistic and technical like Sibiscosis, ivory beetle, gene-rippers, kink-spring and so-on. This adds a rich texture to the story that makes you feel like you're there. The characters are multi-layered. Heroes become villains. Villains become heroes. He does a very good job and giving each character distinctive qualities that go beyond looks and mannerisms--we feel their motivations. Having heard the book, I now want to read it so that I can see the spellings of the names and the terms. Overall a great companion to other books in the genre. If you like Dune, Oryx and Crake, and 1984, you will likely love this book.

russell1200 said...

N: Thank you for stopping by.

If you like Dune, Oryx and Crake, AND 1984? That sounds like the mix of an older audience.

It struck me as being geared more to the younger version of the cyber punk crowd.

The plague you reference are intentional and mostly directed at food crops. With the primary culprets being Agro-business.

I wasn't doing the realism - readability at the time, but I later gave it a 4 and a 7. I am not sure if that is right, I think I would go with more of a 5 and a 6 now.