Ever since the summer I’ve been meaning to write about The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, but my feelings about it are so mixed that it’s hard to say something coherent. The Windup Girl is science fiction geared to the cosmopolitan hipster set, the sort of people who travel by couch-surfing through what used to be called the third world* and whose views range from environmentally-conscious-progressive to conspiracy-theory-nutcase. (Have you ever had a seemingly functional grownup inform you that of course 9/11 was an inside job? Scary.)
The setting in this case is a mildly post-apocalyptic Bangkok reshaped by the disastrous exhaustion of fossil fuels, global warming, and out-of-control genetic engineering, a landscape that is becoming as familiar in SF now as radioactive post-nuclear moonscapes were when I was a kid.
Bacigalupi has some very cute touches:
–The richest man in town is the Dunglord, whose control of solid-waste disposal gives him a monopoly on methane fuel.
–People do computing on treadle-computers, which they have to pedal while they type in order to obtain power. Naturally the monitors are very small.
–The most feared bogey-man is the so-called Calorie Man (surely a joke on the Japanese Salary Man), an operative of the future version of ADM or Monsanto, usually based in the Satanic capital of Des Moines.
Another cute idea is that energy is stored not in batteries or fuel but in very tightly-wound springs, which power, for example, police mopeds. But this introduces the downside of PB’s imaginative fertility: you will ask yourself, why is it easier to use springs than batteries? It’s not as if the people in this book have stopped making sophisticated objects (and for that matter, I bet it requires some fancy industrial tech to make compact steel springs capable of bearing enough tension to power a moped). There may be an answer, but it isn’t given to us.
More broadly, consider that two of the dominating motifs are the desperate seach for energy, which prompts solutions ranging from steampunk to Rube Goldberg, and the intense, suffocating power of the sun. Hmm…how long would it take you to wonder if there might be a way to use the sun to get energy? We could even coin a term for such power, “solar energy”–has a ring to it, don’t you think? I understand that today’s solar cells may use materials that are hard to get or make, but surely the sun could be used to make water evaporate (speaking of steampunk). Someone, at some point, could at least mention the possibility, and someone else could explain why it wouldn’t work.
I’m also a little bit worried about Bacigalupi’s biology, and I wish someone who (unlike me) knows about such things would tell me if it makes any sense, because a lot of what the book has to say seems fishy. For example, I can well believe that out-of-control genetic engineering might lead to unexpected plant diseases, but in Windup Girl these diseases spread from plants to humans with amazing ease. Is this for real? I know James Thurber said that his uncle died of the chestnut blight, but I always thought he was joking.
The Windup Girl herself is that now-familiar character, the sex slave, in this case the genetically-modified sex slave. She is the closest thing to an appealing person in the book (I think we’re supposed to like the guy who is a combination HSA/DEA agent and martial arts star, but he just strikes me as a bullying blowhard), and her issues with overheating are interesting, since her designers gave her skin with tiny pores, enhancing bearty but crippling her ability to dissipate heat through sweat. Even here, though, the author is rather lazy: why does she need ice-water all the time? Any water on the skin would do–after all, sweat is body-temerature water, and it works just fine. Anyway, the descriptions of her brutal workday are extravagantly detailed, so much so that I wonder if PB is mixing righteous outrage with arousal, a combination I find awkward.
So I am torn–Windup Girl left me with several compelling images, but also an overall dissatisfaction at its failure to think hard about the scientific and human issues it deals with. If you want that feeling of “This person has thought long and hard about this difficult idea and come up with a deep imaginative realization of it,” give Ted Chiang a try.
*I believe the currently PC term is “developing world,” which seems to me both arrogant in its presumption that other countires are an immature version of our ‘developed’ selves, and simply wrong as applied to some countries taht appear locked in a cycle of disaster and exploitation, and which can only be described as developing in that sense that TV news-people will speak of a developing hostage crisis.