The Windup Girl
As should probably be clear from my other reviews, I’m a pretty big fan of sophisticated storytelling, and in spite of being a terrifically hard book to begin (the first hundred pages or so), I’m sold on The Windup Girl.
This is the first work of Bacigalupi’s that I’ve read, but apparently it is a world he has explored in short stories before. He writes in a non-war-induced post-apocalyptic earth. The Contraction occurred around some unnamed crisis in petroleum (when tanks and cars show up late in the novel, people are shocked at how fast and strong and energy inefficient they are) that took place in conjunction with an explosion of bioengineered diseases that affect crops (blister rust) and people (fa’ gan, whose symptoms are cauliflower-like growths to appear on the victim’s body).
First with the criticisms. This is not an easy book. Bacigalupi is not a fan of the infodump to the point of nearly avoiding background exposition altogether. He leaves it to the reader to decipher the various terms he drops in – farang (foreigner), fa’ gan (a disease), khun (a title of respect), jai dee (literally, “cool heart”). John Scalzi carries out a similar infodump-less narration in Old Man’s War (my review at Goodreads), but from an English-speaking and generally much more generous perspective.
A couple of reviewers at Goodreads have some critical observations. RandomAnthony asserts that the narration is “bloodless,” which is not a statement I would agree with, but I would certainly grant how a reader might feel that way. Amongst other things, most characters are not particularly likeable. Also, the fourfold POV makes sewing the narrative together initially confusing. As with a lot of formalistic gestures, this one can (and for some) does get in its own way.
February Four couldn’t make it past the potential cultural issues – a U.S. author naming “Malaysia” as “Malaya” in this instance. Again, I don’t find this a problem (or the associated relevant post-colonial issues that could be raised) because (a) it’s an issue that is mostly theoretical for me (as a U.S. resident) and (b) one that I think can be wrapped into his future-world. We never know when this book takes place. Near future, 100 years? Near future, 200 years? Given the several bioengineered critters, I suspect we’re more far than near. A persistent world-building trope Bacigalupi mentions are the “cheshires.” At some point, some guy at a gene-patenting company made a cat that was essentially a transparent chameleon in coloration (like the nasties from the Predator movie franchise?). Turns out the work they did on this great gift for said guy’s daughter was a dominant gene in terms of reproduction. At the time of the book, the domesticated cat, felis catus, is completely extinct, replaced by cheshires (name for Carroll’s critter, of course). That doesn’t happen overnight. I have to add that I don’t think that this removes February Four’s overall objections – the naming/dating is a symptom of the issue that Bacigalupi has set up for himself in transplanting his story – a foreigner stepping on the locals’ toes.
He’s got a complicated narrative that follows four characters (although one tags out with another, á la wrestling). A “calorie man,” Anderson Lake, who is an agent working for AgriGen out of Des Moines. Mash together the CIA, the KGB, and Arthur-Daniels-Midland (Supermarket to the World!) and you’ve got an idea of what his employers are like. Tan Hock Seng, an ethnic Chinese refugee from Malaya who survived an ethnic cleansing and seeks to regain his independence. Jaidee, a police captain for the Environment Ministry – uncorruptible personally, but allowing its common practice by his subordinates (it’s endemic to the Thai capital in this book). His quest to keep the honor of the Thai Kingdom and the Child Queen is eventually assumed by his lieutenant, Kanya (the tag team partner). Last is Emiko, the eponymous title character, a genetically engineered woman from Japan who is quite literally bred to serve.
Jaidee/Kanya’s line is the one that parallels the primary action of the book – the internal politicking and power-grabbing in the city. In fact, it is Jaidee’s actions disrupting some general bribe-taking (and subsequent destroying of goods) that sets off the action of the novel itself. In general, however, the book illustrates individuals struggling against cultural tides greater than themselves. Jaidee/Kanya both look to the Kingdom, while Anderson is steadfast in his pursuit of AgriGen’s goals. Hock Seng and Emiko are completely self-interested, both seeking a kind of freedom. Their actions and the consequences of their actions mutually overlap and interfere with one another, and some singular moments have outsized repercussions (the wrong man dies, the whole city explodes – twice).
Also, as I mentioned, few people are really likeable. It is easiest to sympathize with Emiko, who is the worst anti-woman porn stereotype come to life. I have to say here that I believe this is intentional on the author’s part as a means of illustrating the people who inhabit this world, what the technology is capable of, and providing the necessary push for Emiko to get past her genetic and cultural conditioning to seek revenge and freedom. Nevertheless, I read sections with her and could not imagine my wife getting past the page in question. Bacigalupi is trying to give us a lot to work with, and in so doing, he is setting himself some very high bars to get past.
Jaidee is likeable enough in his thorough honesty and honor, but he’s also an ideologue and damn the torpedoes. Kanya has her own baggage that makes her difficult to like (spoiler here, so I won’t go into it). Anderson scuppers his own life preserver, metaphorically speaking – he obliterates his potential human connection in the interest of his goals. Tan Hock Seng’s viciousness – though never maliciousness – is revealed throughout the book. He’s just someone who’s always calculating the odds of survival. Makes him smart, but not likeable.
I just came across this link about rape in SF/F via Foz Meadows (see the links on the sidebar). It doesn’t describe what happens in The Windup Girl, but it remains relevant to the discussion. I suspect that Bacigalupi is asking the question – if we can genetically engineer kinds of people, what kinds would we make? And he’s answering, “the kinds that fulfill our fantasies without making us feel guilty.” As an author, I think he is trying to make us feel guilty, but, as with his formalistic flourishes, it’s a loaded gun.