Sunday, November 20, 2016

Reading The Windup Girl

Note: This post contains some spoilers for The Windup Girl, but it does not reveal everything in the novel by any means.

A couple of months ago I came across this article listing 17 science fiction novels that changed the genre.  The list includes such great titles as Stranger in a Strange Land, Dune, Foundation, Dhalgren, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Neuromancer. Scanning the list, I realized I had read every book mentioned (and own almost all of them) with the exception of two. One of the two, The Windup Girl, caught my eye because it was published in 2009, the most recent book on the list. I had not heard of it before and decided to pick up a copy.

The novel is exceptionally well-written by author Paolo Bacigalupi.  The prose is expressive, entertaining, sometimes technical, sometimes poetic, and it guides the reader into the vivid world where global warming and various diseases have wrecked havoc on humanity's food supply, the environment, and where plagues arise threatening human life.  The oceans have risen and flooded New York City, Mumbai, New Orleans, and other coastal cities.  The earth is hot.  A handful of major multinational agricultural companies control the world's seed banks.   Part of their monopoly involves the constant bio-engineering of various seed strains in an attempt to stay ahead of the mutating diseases plaguing crop production worldwide.

In this meticulously created world, Bangkok, Thailand is a rare place.  Here the Thai use their own seeds and do not rely on the large bio-engineer companies for food, although there is a lucrative black market for food stocks and other items that are otherwise unavailable in Thailand.  Here, as everywhere else on the planet, global warming means that fossil fuels are no longer the primary basis for transportation or electricity.  Instead there is a new technology based upon "kink springs" that stores energy for various purposes from driving manufacturing to powering guns. These springs are produced in factories, one of which is owned by Anderson Lake.

The factory is a convenient cover for Lake, however.  His real purpose in Bangkok is to locate the Thai seed bank and to see how his company, AgriGen, might benefit from the diversity offered by what is possibly the last non-genetically modified seed stock in the world.  Much of the novel is about his covert investigation into the location of the seed bank.  Along the way he meets Emiko, a genetically engineered life form made in Japan known as a "windup." 

Emiko was a "personal assistant" to a Japanese businessman who either left her in Bangkok or sold her.  Either way she ends up property of a sex club owner. Windups are a novelty of Japanese culture but are generally banned by the outside world. They have a herky-jerky motion about them (hence the name) but they are also very fast and dexterous. The Japanese have even engineered military grade windups for security and combat purposes (one reason they are banned outside). Emiko is a lucrative attraction at the club, where she is regularly humiliated on stage.  

Bacigalupi is excellent at breathing life into his characters. Each is an engaging and believable part of this incredibly intricate world he has created (set about 100 years in the future).  All of the 8 or 10 major characters are fascinating, with private motives and aspirations that frequently are at odds with each other.  His writing style is in the present tense, which takes a bit of adjustment to begin with.  Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of these characters without actually entering into a first-person mode of narration. Instead, each chapter is written in variations of traditional third-person prose.  Greater insight is given to the thoughts and motivations of whichever character happens to be emphasized in the particular chapter. For example, Anderson Lake is referred to as "Anderson" whenever the narrative favors his perspective, but he is referred to as "Lake" in chapters from the perspective of the clerk that assists him in the kink spring factory. Little things like that make the writing style appealing.

The author’s style has another interesting characteristic.  Classic story-telling often uses the third-person as an omniscient perspective to reveal the nature of the story, the background of the characters, and random helpful facts otherwise not involving the characters in order to propel the narrative and aid the understanding of the reader. The Windup Girl doesn’t do that at all. Bacigalupi’s quasi-first-person/third-person hybrid allows him to reveal virtually all aspects of the story’s background and facts about the world he has created completely through the interactions and thoughts of his characters.

There are no substantial bits of information doled out in a strict god-like perspective.  Dialog, action, and occasional introspection by the characters contain tidbits of the puzzle that the reader eventually puts together regarding how the world got to be this way and what exactly human life is like in the present tense.  This distinctively draws the reader in more deeply and it places more emphasis on the characters themselves than in most novels you will read.

For example, Kanya is a woman who begins the novel second in command at the Thai Environmental Ministry, serving under Jaidee, a highly respected, publicly praised official. There are a couple of chapters semi-told from Jaidee’s perspective at the beginning of the novel.  But, Jaidee falls into political disfavor and is ultimately killed, which sparks wider turmoil within the Ministry and among the people of Bangkok. Jaidee has little or no direct interaction with the other major characters, but his story is important in order to understand the background of Kanya when she assumes his former position.

Kanya becomes a major factor, having several chapters from her perspective, in the telling of the primary narrative. A full understanding of who she is as a character would be impossible without knowing her experiences serving under Jaidee.  So Jaidee is her background story.  At almost every level the author chooses to reveal important and entertaining aspects of his characters through other characters.  In this case, the character of Jaidee seems important when the reader first encounters him, but in reality he is just a facilitator for the eventual importance of the character of Kanya. This is an impressive writing technique and Bacigalupi deserves high praise for such distinctive writing.

It is also interesting to note that, of all the characters in the novel it is Emiko, the DNA designed robot, that is the most introspective in the novel.  The human characters all have their own motivations but no one really questions themselves introspectively the way Emiko does - which in some respects makes her more "humane" than the actual humans themselves.  She regularly ponders the nature of her existence.  Who is it inside her that makes her submit to various sexual machinations? Is it the way her smooth and arousing body was engineered that drives her?  Is the "real" Emiko simply her awareness of how repulsed she is when forced to publicly submit to abuse?  

She is depressed and feels trapped by her circumstances, torn between the combative intuitions of instinctual submission and a longing for freedom.  No other character experiences this depth of personal inquiry. But, when she discovers that there is supposedly a village deep in the Thai jungle where only escaped and discarded windups live, a new motivation is instilled in her.  She begins to plot her escape from Bangkok - only she doesn't know exactly where to go.

Emiko meets Anderson along the way and the two end up having an affair of mutual convenience. They don't have any feelings for each other. Anderson desires her sexual expertise as a means to escape from the frustrations of his assignment. Emiko appreciates Anderson's knowledge of Thailand and his ability to find out where this windup village might be located even as he quests for access to the Thai seed bank.

Anderson's secret AgriGen agenda puts him in contact with some of the most powerful people in the Thai government. The two power mongers are the respective heads of the departments of Trade and the Environment Ministry.  The later department has a small army of "white shirts" that enforce Thailand's strict laws protecting their bio-sphere from "farang" (foreign) interests who feed the hearty black market with contraband. 

Bangkok is a corrupt city, running largely on bribes paid to the white shirts to look the other way. Emiko's club owner pays them to keep his windup (illegal without the proper papers) from being confiscated and "mulched."  Anderson has his clerk pay necessary import bribes to bring AgriGen contraband into the country.  But, when the leader of the white shirts, Jaidee, intercepts a dirigible (there is no way to power jets or other aircraft in this dystopian world) filled with smuggled goods by AgriGen and other black market players, the Trade Ministry (the benefactor of most of the black market bribes) takes exception and their own army attacks the white shirts.  Civil War ensues.

It is not quite as simple as I just portrayed it. Emiko, out of frustration and rage about the conditions of her life and her inability to find the location of this village she seeks, murders a powerful Thai figure after he watches one of her “performances.”  This is what sets in motion a chain of events that ultimately triggers the competitive animosity between Environment and Trade. She becomes a fugitive in the city, taking refuge with Anderson until it is believed that she belongs to him and the warring factions break into his apartment, holding him indirectly accountable for the murder which he had nothing to do with.

At the same time, the kink spring factory (due to the chemical process used to manufacture the springs) inadvertently develops a form of algae that infects the workers with one of the half dozen or so diseases that plague humanity in this novel. The outbreak of the disease leads to the burning of the factory as the civil war rages around the city.

What happens to each warring faction, to each character, and to Bangkok as a whole represents a brutal climax to the novel. It is interesting that virtually no one gets what they want throughout the course of the novel.  Anderson never locates the seed bank.  Emiko never finds the alleged village of New People, as the windups are collectively called. Some characters don't survive the novel.  The goals and aspirations of every character are somehow unresolved, failed, or altered due to the course of events.

But all is not lost.  Novel uses the cliff hanger narrative technique to suggest a hopeful resolution. Where Emiko is concerned, she randomly meets a prominent bio-engineer (called a "generipper") in the novel's epilogue.  She is initially put off by him because his kind is the source of her tangled feelings of incompleteness.  Windups are not quite robots, not quite human.  They are a genetic oddity and, as I mentioned, Emiko struggles with this existential fact throughout the novel.  The generipper cannot tell Emiko where the New People village might be but he offers something else.  He can use DNA from her hair to create other New People, thereby potentially fulfilling Emiko's desire to live among her own kind.  So the narrative is tinged with hope despite the overwhelming devastation that is rampant at the end of the story.  

I was surprised to learn that The Windup Girl is Paolo Bacigalupi first novel.  I may try to read more of his works in the future as his writing style is enjoyable and distinctive, his imagination sophisticated, detailed and realistic, and his melding of the world he creates as revealed through his character’s experiences is exactly the type of thing that is best about the science fiction genre.  It deserves comparisons with such classics as RingworldDangerous Visions and the other books mentioned in the article referenced above. 

There is no underlying metaphorical message or theme to this work (other than a strong environmentalist premise). Rather, the novel is a robust portrayal of realistic human experience in a fantastic world that is based upon some mega-trends in our present society.  Given the strength of current events, this is a somewhat likely future for humanity and by using the experiences of his characters (instead of third-person omniscient narration) to reveal the world through their actions The Windup Girl creates a distinctive reading experience that entertains and rewards. This is a special work.

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