We’ve already written about The City & the City, by China Miéville, which was a joint winner of the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel. The reason it was joint winner, and not sole winner, was The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Not only did The Windup Girl win the Hugo, it also took home the 2009 Nebula Award as well. Not too shabby, since only 19 other books have ever done that, including titles like Ender’s Game and Dune.
I’ve seen it classified as a steampunk novel a bunch of places, but it’s actually the opposite of steampunk. Instead of being set in the past, with more advanced technological and mechanical advances than truly existed during that time, this is set in the future, but a future which has fallen backwards technologically. It’s a future where the average person no longer has electricity, or cars, and no one travels by airplane. Yet, there are also the remnants of humanity’s genetic creation of entire new species of animals. Thus, this dystopian novel is more like cyberpunk without the computers (I learned today that the subgenre is called, biopunk).
The story is set in the 23rd Century, in a world where all of our darkest predictions have come true. Global warming has flooded most major coastal cities, after running out of gasoline without discovering an alternative, the technology we take for granted is a thing of the past, and, worst of all, unchecked multinational corporations have taken control of the world’s food production by using “genehacking” and bioterrorism. However, this intentional bioterrorism has gone out of control, and the entire world is on the brink of extinction. Life is a race against plagues and biological diseases that threaten to wipe out every living organism on the planet.
Set in a Bangkok, Thailand precariously protected from the floods of global warming by massive dams and pumps, the story focuses on several characters. Anderson Lake, who works for a global food production corporation and is undercover investigating a flux of new produce which is hitting the markets in Bangkok. Hock Seng, once a powerful shipping magnate in Malaysia, now a refugee whose entire family was killed during Muslim genocide against ethnic Chinese in Malaysia. Emiko, a windup girl, a Japanese invention, genetically engineered and grown humanoid, created and trained as a slave, engineered to compulsively seek out a master and obey. Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, a former muay thai champion who now works for the Environment Ministry, or White Shirts, authorized to do whatever it takes to protect Thailand from further bioterrorism, he is a cult-hero amongst the Thai.
A mix of intrigue, social commentary, and dire warnings about an all too possible future. It’s also full to the brim with gripping philosophical questions. What makes humanity ‘human’? Are we essentially good or evil? Is there any hope of saving the human race from itself? What are our responsibilities to our neighbors, next door and across the border?
Yet, none of these larger categories bogs Bacigalupi down. He still weaves a truly engrossing story about realistically ambiguous characters. Each character functions as a brilliant microcosm of the world in which the story is set.
This book is fascinating on such a myriad of levels. There are more than enough reasons to keep you turning the pages. To quote Lev Grossman in the review on the cover, “I hope he writes ten sequels.”