Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"The Windup Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi

Summary: In a future world where most agriculture has been wiped out and massive corporations hold the patents on available seeds, Thailand has been more successful than most countries.  But the country is unstable itself, as warring factions compete for control.  Within this world, various characters' stories come together.  There is Anderson, a corporate man from America, out to discover Thailand's seed stock.  Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee, is Anderson's right-hand-man, but Hock Seng has plans of his own.  Emiko is a windup--a New Person--created by the Japanese to blindly serve; discarded by her Japanese master, she endures forced humiliation every day as a prostitute.  Lastly, there are Jaidee and Kanya, two Thai governmental workers with their own agendas.

Musings: The Windup Girl was brought to my attention as the winner of this year's Hugo Award.  I had heard positive things about Bacigalupi's recent young adult novel, Ship Breaker, and was eager to try this dystopia.  And although I enjoyed this novel very much, I was struck by how different it is than most of the dystopians I read.  I realized that although young adult marketed literature only makes up a third of what I read overall, young adult categorizes the majority of the science-fiction/dystopian I read.

For me there are clear differences between young adult dystopians and adult dystopians.  I am no doubt generalizing, but in reading The Windup Girl, these differences especially struck me.  By and large, young adult dystopians are concerned with individual characters and their fights to survive and/or defeat tyrannical systems.  The worlds they inhabit are interesting but often not too detailed, and while social critique may play a role, it usually is secondary to the character's journey.

In adult dystopians like The Windup Girl (this would also apply to classic sci-fi like Dune or recent books like Atwood's The Year of the Flood), the world is central.  For this reason, there are often a number of primary characters, each of whom exists to demonstrate a particular aspect of the world.  Extraordinary attention is paid to the political and social order, and in fact the political background often takes precedence over the individual characters' stories.  Typically the novel offers some critique of our current society.

It's easier to prefer the young adult route, which is often less complicated and more action-oriented, so at first I was a bit unsure of The Windup Girl.  In the end, I discovered that Bacigalupi's novel in no way lacked in action, intrigue or characterization.  Its attention on political leaders and uprisings was not to my taste, but the focus was necessary in the story Bacigalupi created.  I raced through the book as fast as any engrossing young adult I've read, and I believed completely in the Thailand of the novel.

The characters are complex, and none are either "good" or "bad."  Abuse is rampant, but the novel never feels hopeless, though some of the strong violence was difficult to read.  Emiko was undoubtedly my favorite character, perhaps because she is the most innocent, but I also enjoyed learning about the layers of Kanya. 

The Windup Girl would definitely be a hit with anyone who enjoys classic science-fiction or wants an adult dystopian with strong world building.

1 comment:

  1. This is a well written book; the author has talent as he creates and defines this possible world of the future and the characters that inhabit it. None of the characters in the book are likable, though, either because they are corrupt, dishonest, racist, simple-mindedly stupid, or just greedy; they have no redeeming qualities. And the book itself is VERY depressing, with much suffering and death. Nothing even remotely nice happens until page 300 or so, and then it only lasts a short time. Some of the depressing mood is because of the state of the world in this future, but most of it is just the result of the unlikable characters and the situations the author puts them in. While it was good to be reading fine writing, I couldn't wait for it to end so I could get on to something else. The author is compared by others to several well regarded authors, but because of how depressing this story is, its just not in the same category as them. Some characters need some tiny redeeming aspect and the story needs some possibility of a decent outcome, even if only hinted at, otherwise it just remains a long read thru an unpalatable future.