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The Wind Up Girl
Type: Science FictionAuthor: Paolo_Bacigalupi
If you haven't already heard of this book, you may be interested to know that it won a whole host of awards and accolades when it came out in 2009. It was that years No. 9 novel in 'Time''s top fiction and it was also (in an almost unprecedented move) made joint-winner of the 2009 Hugo Award (the other winner was China Mieville's 'The City & The City' - evidently 2009 was a vintage year for authors with hard-to-spell Romance language surnames). But is it any good? Books and authors can win prizes and awards for all sorts of reasons quite separate from the quality of what they have written. Sometimes a book or author will win for political reasons and other times they win because the author's personality or life is more interesting than their own fictions (a classic example of that is 'Vernon God Little' by DBC Pierre, which is poorly written twaddle by any measure and yet sold in large numbers because of it's glowing reviews and awards. The follow-up novel, 'Ludmilla's Broken English' sank without trace as have his two following novels). Sometimes, they simply win because they write or have written for the newspapers whose positive reviews can help shift books off the shelves. (The Catch-22 of publishing is that a publisher will rarely show interest in an author until he/she has already been published, but the debut writer can't get published precisely because he/she isn't published! Still, new forms of self-publishing are making changes to that situation even as I write - though not, I believe, to the extent that some of the more enthusiastic cheer leaders of the Internet believe, but anyway, that's another story ...) Happily though, all that kind of nonsense seems to be far more of an issue in literary fiction than it is in SF and Fantasy. Literary fiction suffers from constantly trying to impress professors of literature in the academy. Quite a strange thing to do as it turns out, as since at least the late 1970s those self-same literature professors have given up on the idea of a book having a thing called a 'story' or the idea of the story being 'good' and only ever seem to be interested in what the 'text' as a 'product' has to say about the schizophrenic logos of Spivak's third stage of Jamesonian capitalism (or something like that, I may not have been paying full attention at the time!). Luckily though, the latter kind of fiction, SF and Fantasy that is, still actually care about answers to questions such as: 'Is there a plot?', 'Are the characters believable and can I believe in the world they live in?' and, what must be incredibly revolutionary for the aforementioned literature professor-types, 'Is it well written and am I likely to actually enjoy reading this book?', 'Will I actually care what happens to these characters?'. Luckier still that what Bacigalupi has written is a great story with strong, believable characters moving through a highly detailed and richly imagined world. But then that's science or speculative fiction for you - for most of the time it's more imaginative, enjoyable and, even, more experimental than some of the almost completely unreadable offerings by the likes of Ali Smith or Salman Rushdie. 'The Wind Up Girl' is a novel set in 23rd Century Thailand. Other reviewers have described the novel as dystopian and certainly the novel, which takes place in Thailand, gives us a nation that is riven with ethnic tensions, that has a poverty-stricken populace, and which is suspicious and fearful of foreigners. The Thais of the book despise Europeans, Americans and the Japanese even as they accept funding and investment from those other parts of the world, allowing them into the kingdom to set up businesses within the kingdom. In other words, this is a depiction of a country that (and apologies to any Thai readers) actually is very much like the Thailand of the world we live in today. In that sense, the novel is only dystopian insofar as Bangkok is now. What the novel does do, however, is give us a fascinating portrait of a world the surface details of which have changed radically from the one we know in 2012, but where international trade routes. geopolitics and diplomatic relations have remained fundamentally unchanged. What Bacigalupi gives us is a post-oil world which, far from having collapsed in the absence of oil, has evolved and adapted to the realities of a post-combustion engine world. And humanity has done this brilliantly, for the search for alternative energy sources has resulted in an obsession with collecting and trapping heat, either as calories (food) or as joules (kinetic energy). Computers, for example, still exist, but they are kept powered by foot peddles operated by their users. When the user stops peddling, the screen shuts down. Lacking heavy industry, first-world nations have turned to genetically-modified technologies to save it. But Bacigalupi's 23rd century is one where every solution to problem 'A' turns out to be the cause of problem 'B'. For example, GM crops have created mutant viruses that, in some parts of the world, have destroyed cereal crops and created famines. And one of the reasons for the Thai government's xenophobia in this novel is that we learn that, many years earlier, the King of Thailand sealed off the borders of the country and thus saved it from a terrible genetically-induced famine that has near destroyed neighbouring nations, such as Cambodia. In fact, one of the plot lines in the book hints strongly at the idea that the official fear of GM crops is actually the diplomatic excuse used to seal off the kingdom's borders from refugees. The Windup girl of the title is Emiko, a genetically-engineered escort girl who has been abandoned by her Japanese 'sponsor' during a business trip. Thailand is a miserable and terrifying place for her. Her skin has been genetically-engineered to be almost perfectly smooth. While this makes her hypnotically beautiful to look at, it also means that the pores in her skin barely open, meaning that she swoons from physically overheating whenever she overexerts herself. Not only is she living in Thailand as an illegal immigrant without papers, but her very being is also outlawed - she is not recognised as human in Thai law because of her GE origins. For much of the novel, we see the extraordinary privations she has to face to survive in this hellish Bangkok of the depths, of seedy night clubs and even seedier clients. But the core of the plot surrounds another foreigner, the American Anderson Lake. Lake appears in Bangkok as a businessman, fast losing money on a new method of creating and storing energy in the form of joules. In fact, we discover, Lake is in the country for an entirely different reason, which will soon bring him close to near disaster. In the long run, there may in fact be stronger SF novels out there but there is a huge amount to recommend this book. For those who enjoy SF stories which throw its characters into a carefully considered and richly imagined world, this books is a must read.
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