Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Saturday Review: Windup Girl

I am a big fan of William Gibson. The novels of The Sprawl were my first introduction to "modern" science fiction (for as valid a term as that is), and over the intervening decades since I first stumbled across them, I have eagerly awaited each of Gibson's new novels. Which, as anyone who is a fan of Gibson knows, is a usually a pretty long wait. And while they are always worth the wait, I am not very patient. Fortunately, there is The Windup Girl.

If I called this book Gibsonian, that would probably sum up it's basic premise better than anything else. TWG is not cyberpunk in any traditional sense (a quick look at blurbs describes it as "biopunk," but that seems too easy a label), but the nature of the world the characters lives in has that same streetwise neo-noir future. Only where Gibson and others delved into the realm of the computer and the technological, Bacigalupi's future is more organic, and one that seems a much more impending future. The set-up is simple: this is a post carbon-crash world, one where fossil fuels have either run out or run sufficiently short to amount to the same thing. Bioengineering is a way of life and has been for a while, with the consequence that there are genetically modified foods in the market, strange new artificially created life forms, and frightening new viruses and plagues.

At one part steampunk in it's approach to getting around the problems created by a lack of combustion engines (there are airships, of course), unlike stories in that genre this is no alternate future or reworked past. This is a serious look at what such a new world would mean not only for the world economy and the great nations, but smaller nations as well. And if it is one part steampunk, it is also one part dystopian disaster fiction. Climate change is a harsh reality in this world, all the more so for nations that live close to sea level, including Thailand, where the story is set. The sea is kept just barely at bay, and at great expense. Just as real are the results of bioengineered crops and animals more keenly felt in smaller, less powerful nations. Eating the wrong food from the market can expose yourself to all sorts of unpleasant consequences, and people are always on the lookout for past food stores and genetics that offer purer alternatives.

We meet several characters, each of them compelling in their own way if not all equally likeable. One is a company man, a "Calorie Man" working for what seem to be the big movers and shakers in this new world: biotech companies. Here, too, the author draws on a familiar theme, that of the mega company of the future that is the ultimate mover and shaker in a world where old political and economic boundaries have fallen. But, again, TWG does something a little different with it, and gives us the perspective of the smaller nation having to compete and defend itself against companies that would have felt right at home in a William Gibson novel. 

Another character is the titular Windup Girl, a creation straight out of Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (though perhaps owing more to Bladerunner than the novel itself), an artificial woman struggling with the nature of who and what she is. Then there are government rebels, and self-serving refugees, and a host of smaller characters, all at once both familiar and new. All as equally plausible, as equally believable as the setting itself.

This is a novel that draws heavily on past materials, then interweaves them with new ideas and points them in new directions, all masterfully written with a style that was as compelling as it was innovative. Once started it was hard to put down, as I kept wanting to spend more time in this world the author has created, even if parts of that world aren't very pleasant.

In fact, if I had one complaint about this novel, it is that it is so far the only novel set in this world. Bacigalupi has written two short stories set in this universe, but The Windup Girl is the first full-length novel. (Which was a bit surprising. I expected "Calorie Man" to be another novel, given how fully formed this world he's created is, and it took me a bit of searching to discover it was in a book and not a book itself.) Just so long as it's not the last, I'll be a very, very happy reader.

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