RogerBW's Blog

The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi 06 August 2018

2009 Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning biopunk science fiction. Some time in the future, after peak oil and the crop blights, Thailand is one of the few countries that's still hanging on. But in Bangkok various factions are about to collide.

This is the sort of story we might have got if Gibson had chosen to set Neuromancer entirely within Chiba, rather than moving the plot out into the larger world. Everyone's a hustler, out for what they can get; nobody can be trusted, because they'll stab you in the back as soon as they see any slight advantage. If humans actually worked like this we'd never have had cities in the first place, or probably even agriculture.

Oh, and there's one exception to that: the principal female character, who's a genetically engineered prostitute, degraded and raped for show every night. Because that's what female characters are for in *punk books. All right, I already thought that rape to establish sympathy and motivation was an overused trope in books and film; this is particularly true when the camera, or the writer, lingers on the details. Like violent comics in the Action mould, they say that this nastiness is being done by bad and nasty people, so it's a cautionary tale that you can enjoy without being a bad person yourself. Look a little closer…

And of course she's Japanese, with geisha-style mannerisms and perfect skin, and a hidden capacity for violence. Because this whole damn book is about how the Orientals are Not Like Us; none of the Thai characters is at all sympathetic, and the narrative focus is largely on an American expatriate. It's westerners who provide all the impulses to change that get things moving (for good or ill, mostly ill); there are Thai details painted in, but they don't drive the plot, and post-collapse Bangkok could just as easily have been any other post-collapse city. Cultural appropriation is the whole premise: look at these weird foreigners, aren't they strange and hidebound, I'm so glad I'm an American who just wants to make money.

Oh, and there are ghosts that everyone agrees are real and they can talk to. No, no explanation, why would you expect one in what's otherwise trying to present itself as a hard-SF book?

The technological background is potentially interesting: there's no oil (for reasons never explained, but fair enough), and coal is very limited, and so almost everything has to run on muscle power. (We deal with nuclear, solar, wind, wave, and other sources of power by ignoring their existence.) For another reason never explained, this means that there's no electricity either: people light their houses with methane-burning lamps, small inefficient individual combustors fed by gas bottles that have to be hauled in, rather than having a large efficient methane-burning power plant and using electrical power to feed something a bit better than a gas flame. Even though they supposedly care desperately about total carbon emissions.

This breaks as soon as you poke it. A factory is powered by engineered "megodonts" (which are like elephants but even bigger and cooler)… but if you can feed an elephant, you can extract energy from that fodder crop and turn it into electricity with much higher efficiency. (And human muscles are used for all sorts of tasks, which is similarly inefficient.) "Kink-springs" store energy to turn fans and drive scooters, and of course to power guns.

"I've got kink-springs the size of my fist that hold a gigajoule of power. Quadruple the capacity-weight ratio of any other spring on the market. […] We haven't had power this portable since gasoline."

Gasoline gives you about 44 MJ/kg. You're claiming something like twenty times that energy density (apparently without realising you've done it), just so that you can use a cool word like "gigajoule" at the same time as cashing in on the steampunk æsthetic.

So it's style over substance, and the style is tedious grim hopelessness. Many people loved this book, but I found the grinding stupidity and selfishness too much, and the Thai setting self-indulgent and desperately prone to exoticisation of the oriental.

Read for Neil Bowers' Hugo-Nebula Joint Winners Reread.

The joint winner of the 2009 Hugo was China Miéville's The City and the City; many people also like Miéville, but I find his writing gratuitously unpleasant in much the same manner as Bacigalupi's and I haven't read this one. Other nominees, none of which I've read either, were Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, Robert J. Sawyer's Wake, Catherynne M. Valente's Palimpsest and Robert Charles Wilson's Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America.

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  1. Posted by Dr Bob at 09:24am on 06 August 2018

    I read Bacigalupi's The Water Knife and enjoyed it (it's a SW America gone to shit), but avoided The Windup Girl because of the genetically engineered prostitute. The supporting character prostitute in The Water Knife is more real world - drug addict and delusionally hoping a rich client will like her enough to marry her.

    Robert Sawyer's Wake is a lot of fun. I heartily disagree with his bicameral mind theory, but the trilogy is uplifting and full of niceness and people trying to do the right thing.

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