Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Wind Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Wind Up Girl is an SF book published in the US last year. I wouldn't have even heard of it if it hadn't been recommended as part of the Manchester SF Book Club - though its been highly acclaimed, winning best novel at the Hugos this year, alongside China Mieville's The City and the City.

The world of the Wind Up Girl has too main components. It is our future, where sea levels have risen, and our petro-culture is over. As well, feeding the world is now a culmination of the Monsanto dream/nightmare, where giant agri-genetics businesses feed those parts of the world not destroyed by flood or pestilence. This genetically altered world is rife with disease, each new genetic modification leading to a range of mutating diseases.

Against all of this, is the Thai Kingdom, stubbornly fighting off both flood and pestilence. The kingdom is protected by massive dykes keeping out the waters, and an army of "White Shirts" hunting down and destroying any genetically modified materials being smuggled into the kingdom, in a pseudo-religious fight against disease. Ironically, the kingdom reminds me greatly of David Mitchell's depiction of 1799 Japan in "Thousand Autumns." Like that novel, here is a closed country that has turned its back on the rest of the world, and wishes to do things its own way, for fear of what the outside world will bring - and here as well, there is the smallest enclave allowed, where an experimental facility exists. The novel starts with Anderson, the "calorie man" from the agri-gen business, finding in the Thai markets new foods that have no connection to GM foods. The "ngaw" - a kind of lychee - hints at the existence of a secret Thai seedbank, untainted by modern genetics.

The book starts awkwardly, with three or four parallel stories. We see Anderson, his Chinese foreman Hock Seng, the white shirts on a raid of the "landing pods", and finally, the Wind-up Girl herself - a genetically modified "new person" developed by the Japanese as a perfect geisha. Bacigalupi's vision is confusing at first, he's not fully sketched out the world. Despite being a first novel, the world he's writing about has been there already in short stories. Then there's his prose, echoes of Ballard, but full with technocratic of detail. Yet much of the novel is dialogue, and the various characters, though convincingly drawn, haven't got convincing voices. In the Thai kingdom he gives us outsiders: wind-up, Chinese refugee, Americans, gangsters.

Some of the early chapters - such as the white shirts blowing up the dirigible on the landing pods are confusing at first - its only later you realise that we're in the midst of a power struggle between "trade" and "environment" - though potentially crass, this takes us deep into Bacigalupi's overall vision. Yes, its an ecological fable, a horrible parable, but he's thought through the various scenarios of his new world, and as the novel unfolds, the beauty is not in the story itself, but in the fleshing out our understanding of this world. The plot itself isn't quite so strong. The search for the "ngaw" seems to get lost. I'm still at a loss to know what Anderson's factory was trying to achieve - and the Thai seedbank, and its rogue geneticist creator (Gibson - a deformed, dying American), with his echoes of Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness" seems part of a greater narrative - rather than central to the novel. If "The City and the City" suffered a little from being a police procedural, so "The Wind Up Girl" suffers from its narrative drive. For trade and environment become involved in an open civil war for the heart of the kingdom, the Wind Up Girl of the title becoming the accidental catalyst for the war. Emiko, the wind up, is a sex slave, but she's also a "new person", but has been designed sterile and with an obvious gait that differentiates them from humans - as a previous experiment with cats had led to grinning "cheshires" taking over from the humble moggy.

The second half of the book, with its impending doom, has a real drive to it, and the book's real strength is that it gives the reader an exciting thriller, whilst still letting us into a highly imagined future world. Whereas Ballard and even Gibson would have spent the majority of time on defining their world, perhaps the modern reader requires less of that, and more action. Bacigalupi delivers, but it creates a strange hybrid of a novel, awkward in places, and with no obvious centre. Neither the Wind Up Girl of the title or the search for the "ngaws" and the seedbank becomes the centre of the novel, and some of the subplots - for instance the time we spend with the "white shirts" - are far less interesting. That said, the novel's reach is astonishing, and you can imagine that there are as many future stories in the world he has created as you might find in Iain M. Banks' "The Culture" or Mieville's fantasies.

No comments: