Overhead, the towers of Bangkok's old Expansion loom, robed in vines and mold, windows 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 chapatis and boil kopi before the white shirts can storm the sweltering heights and beat them for their infringements.
The Windup Girl
This paragraph did the most for me in capturing the setting and indeed the subject of Paolo Bacigalupi's book. The 'Expansion', in this case, is us - the petro-energy rich global civilization that we live in now, which is the bedrock of the world in The Windup Girl. It is a bedrock not of security, though, but of horror. Our world has come down; to use the cliche, it has come crashing down both figuratively and (in many places around the world and around the Bangkok of this story) literally, with concrete and rebar boulders lying haphazardly about the ruined stumps of buildings too tall to inhabit without the energy for elevators or cooling. Calling it 'environmentalism sci-fi' is not out of place.
This book is also part of a relatively recent science fiction subgenre I would call 'place-fi' which works to almost fetishistically render non-Western environments not only as settings, but as the point of their tales. Dave Marusek and Ian McDonald represent recent contributers to the genre. This represents what I believe to be some of its most positive attributes. In addition, however, it lies in a more nebulously bounded area of the genre which I don't have a good name for other than 'ambient' - books like Maureen F. McHugh's China Mountain Zhang and Half the Day is Night or even China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. These are books which have been written with perhaps great skill, and great imagination - but which I really didn't enjoy reading. They consist (to me, your mileage may vary) of long series of vignettes about people I don't really like or care about in places that I either attach as much emotion to as an airport waiting room, or in fact actively dislike to the point of nausea.
See, let me be clear. The book is really about three things. Ready? It's about Bangkok, years in the future when the energy has run out and widespread genetic engineering both irresponsible and deliberately harmful has destroyed most of the world's natural food crops. Diseases (mutated and artificial) are rampant, with history of ruthless quarantine and burning in the Thailand we view through Bacigalupi's pen. The world has expanded again, with travel taking weeks rather than hours, and the cost rising astronomically.
It's also about a small group of people living there. A western expat gene-ripper, undercover and working for one of the very entities that caused the genetic collapse. Other westerners, shippers and merchants. An expat club-owner pimp. A Thai revolutionary working for the Government, and his assistant. A refugee from the past pogroms targeting the Chinese, living in a slum and working a coolie job.
And, of course, it's about the Windup Girl, a Japanese engineered human ("New Person") unsuited for the climate but highly prized as a sex toy. Engineered for obedience and to move in a manner which will always mark her as artificial, she is terrorized by all around her and exists only to survive, when the book starts.
The problem for me is that while I suppose a deal of things happen during the book, at the end of it it felt like they hadn't. Not because the situation of those involved hadn't changed - it had changed, and in most cases quite dramatically. But it hadn't changed in a manner that felt like I'd been reading a plotted story. It felt like I'd watched a window of time around a series of dramatic events, and yes, each of the characters has been tossed about by them. Some of them may have affected what went on. But it's told so atmospherically that I never got the chance to identify with any of them and make any of their stories one I really cared about following.
I've never been to Thailand, so I can't make any statements about how well or poorly Bacigalupi has captured Thailand, but that doesn't matter. He's captured a Thailand that doesn't exist, and he has painted his pictures of it very very convincingly, with color and precision and depth. He has some interesting ideas about the death of cheap energy and the sociological and technological responses to it.
I just find, living on this the other side of the Collapse from it, that it's a place I really am not interested in going, even in my head - and while his ideas are interesting, they don't really matter as far as this story goes.
Your mileage may vary.
This book continues to offer support for my theory that any book Cory Doctorow raves about, I'm going to dislike to the point of nausea.
The Windup Girl
Published by Night Shade Books, April 20, 2010
Paperback, 300 pages