Paolo Bacigalupi is the author of Pump Six and Other Stories, one of the best short fiction collections I have ever read. I was very much looking forward to reading his first full length novel, especially after I found out it would be set in the same future as his stories The Calorie Man and The Yellow Card Man. The last story especially has a close connection to the novel. To say I had (unreasonably) high expectations of this novel is probably an understatement. Although I had some quibbles with both the pacing and character development the novel did not disappoint.
The novel is set in a future Thailand, one of the few places on earth that is not totally dependant on a small number of large agricultural/industrial companies. Oil has run out, the sea level has risen considerably and carbon is strictly rationed. Internal combustion engines have all but disappeared because of this, and has largely be replaced by muscle, both human and animal. Where oil once ruled, the calorie is the all important factor in production processes. To make matters even more complicated, various biological weapons have wreaked havoc on the world's ecosystems and food production can only be kept at a sufficient level to feed the population by careful genetic engineering. Keeping one step ahead of the viruses is tricky though. The Thai government has managed to a degree but the big companies are trying to get a foothold in the country.
Against this backdrop Bacigalupi follows a number of characters. A Calorie Man, an agent of one of the big companies, trying to find the secret of Thailand's relative success in keeping food production up. A Yellow Card Man, a Chinese refugee of the Malaysian pogrom in which he lost his family, desperately trying to build a life again. A Windup Girl, a genetically engineered human, trained to be a secretary and translator with benefits for a Japanese business man. Abandoned by her owner, very illegal, almost unconditionally obedient and without rights she has fallen into the hands of a bar owner who does not appreciate her for her intellectual qualities. And finally a White Shirt, an official of the ministry of environment, once all powerful and now slowly losing ground to the ministry of trade. Something he means to put a stop to. Everybody has a price in Thailand but the Tiger of Bangkok cannot be bought. In Bangkok's steaming political climate these seemingly minor players will be essential in the drama that is about to unfold.
I marvel at the detailed picture of this future Thai society Bacigalupi has created in this novel. His environmental themes in this novel, the commentary on the way we produce our food in particular, is something I don't think I came across in any other speculative fiction I have read. It is a bleak future indeed if Bacigalupi's scenario would unfold but unfortunately it is not entirely outside the realm of possibility. The way food is dragged across the globe and what that does to local economies as well as the attempts to patent genetic codes and the lengths to which some companies are prepared to go to protect these patents are pretty disturbing. I also think he has written a very interesting chain of events in Thailand's political arena. I would be a major spoiler to elaborate about that unfortunately.
It has to be said though, at some points in the novel Bacigalupi probably pays a little too much attention to his setting. It slows the novel down in several places, making the pacing a bit uneven. A more serious problem is the character development. Emiko, the Windup Girl is especially problematic. Her character and story depend largely on her breaking the conditioning she received. Bacigalupi approached this by putting her under a lot of psychological pressure but given the misery she has been suffering on a day to day basis for years, this does not entirely convince me. The Yellow Card Man Hock Seng is a more interesting character but ultimately he says stagnant, constantly worried about his survival and fearing for another round of violence against the Chinese.
In a way The Calorie Man Anderson and the White Shirt Jaidee are the most interesting, both striving for their goals without compromise. Or course, given the end of the novel, one could wonder if this was a wise course of action but it certainly makes for interesting reading. I guess it is telling that the true twist in the story eventually comes from neither of these four. Bacigalupi made the events in Bangkok the real focus of the book. There is something to be said for that choice, his attention to detail and the believable scenario he presents make it the novel's strong point. It would have been nice see a little more development in the characters though.
The Windup Girl is a very good novel length expansion of the themes Bacigalupi wield with such success in his shorter work. I didn't think it was quite as good as his short fiction but the novel is certainly among the better ones I have read this year. I very much appreciated the environmental themes in his work, something Bacigalupi handles with an understanding rarely seen in other science fiction novels. The future he describes is bleak but also fascinating and the Thai setting is so well realized it convinced me (granted, I have never been even close to Thailand). The novels has some flaws, a few of which other reviews will no doubt think quite serious. The novel kept me captivated anyway. I think the author can do better, and I certainly hope he will in years to come, but the fact remains is that I thoroughly enjoyed The Windup Girl. As far as I am concerned this is one of the 2009 publications that should be on your reading list.
Title: The Windup Girl
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Night Shade Books
First published: 2009