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.


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Crazy Beats Dishonesty

Turns out Lindsey Graham was wrong, in 2016 America thinks Crazy trumps Dishonesty (forgive the pun).  Turns out the GOP is at war with itself but it does not matter.  Turns out almost all the polls were wrong.  Turns out Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin were the wild cards to Donald Trump's election.  Trump conquered the Electoral Map in grand style, thanks largely to angry voters.  But, more significantly, Trump won with fewer voters showing up in major cities like Milwaukee, Detroit, and Philadelphia.  Had the turnout been higher in these three cities it is very possible that Clinton (who benefited from higher urban voter participation) would have carried these three respective states that she lost to Trump.  That was the election in a nutshell.

Hillary may have won the debates, she may have been more favorably perceived by the news media, but in 2016 the voters were anti-establishment, anti-media, and anti-logic - a perfect storm for a candidate like Trump. 

This absurd election gave us the most absurd president in American history and it gave the Republican Party complete control across the board.  This will impact the Supreme Court, the environment, privacy rights, foreign policy, healthcare - it affects everything.  


Hillary's characterization of Trump's supporters as "deplorables" was an enormous misstep on her part.  Since that comment was made Trump only gained among blue collar workers and others who are resentful of the Washington elite. Clinton may have helped galvanize Trump supporters by being so critical of them.  As was revealed in my review of Hunter Thompson's book on the 1972 election (see mention of Ed Muskie in Florida), you should never, never, never criticize the electorate.  That just pisses people off and makes them more likely to gravitate against you


Kellyanne Conway, the person most responsible for this stunning victory, says Trump "has been given a mandate." Maybe so, but how does she explain the fact Hillary won more votes than Trump?  Even more importantly, fewer Americans voted in 2016 than in 2012.  Trump won the presidency with fewer votes than Mitt Romney received four years ago.  My guess is because our two-party political fetish in this country gave us two very unpopular candidates. None of that sounds like a "mandate" to me (except for maybe a mandate to give us someone decent to vote for next time).


If such a mandate does, in fact, exist then it is a reflection of the "real" America.  2016 proves we are far from being a progressive nation.  I suspect the next four years will mostly be about disassembling the last eight.


Our future course as a nation is uncertain.  One thing is for sure...the voters will get the kind of government they deserve. Trump has revealed many qualities of the America that voted him in - the danger of a democracy is acute mediocrity. With each election cycle our elected officials become more inept.  If that happens long enough in a democracy you get the absurd - in this case, the absurd is now the leader of the free world. Mission accomplished America. 


In a sense, this election was not about Donald Trump at all. It was about who we are as a democratic nation.  The message is clear.  Most American voters are fed up with business as usual in Washington.  Most are not happy with the direction the country is going in.  Most don't care if you are racist or sexist or neurotic as long as you promise to keep us "safe" and tell us we are "great." We are a terrified people, without defined principles.  We prefer our facts to be shallow and simple.  If the situation is complex it is best to avoid it entirely.  We will let the world fester into a climate chocked, crony capitalistic, well-spring of narcissism and greed as long as you leave us and our television programming alone.  This is who we are.  This is the lesson of the 2016 election.

May you live in interesting times, is the old saying. And so it is. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

An Exhibition Revisited


As we did last year, Jennifer and I met up with some of our 'Dillo friends to attend a open studio art event in Atlanta last night. This year we enjoyed a pre-art dinner at Tuk Tuk, a nice Thai restaurant near the exhibit.  Paintings, sculptures, photographs, digital art, and mixed media work abounded. Once again the venue was crowded and the somewhat narrow halls often restricted my ability to snap a good photo of some of the art. Overall, I did not think the exhibit was as strong this year as last. But there were several high-quality pieces. Some samples below...









Detail of above.




Detail of above.





Detail of above.






Friday, November 4, 2016

The Most Absurd Election Ever

On the wall in my office I have a sign that simply reads: "Dishonesty Beats Crazy."  That is the way Republican Senator Lindsey Graham characterized the 2016 presidential election back in February.  I thought it was an erudite comment at the time, probably the best single summation of the Donald Trump - Hillary Clinton election train wreck.

Graham succinctly defined the choice between someone who is widely perceived as one of the most dishonest politicians in America, Hillary Clinton, and the absolute craziest loose cannon on the political stage, Donald Trump.  It is not a choice most Americans care for and this is probably the most loathed presidential choice in my lifetime. The American electorate is pissed off and stressed out over this mess.


So, until recently, Graham's statement captured the 2016 zeitgeist of American politics for me.  All that has changed now.  Graham’s comparison is still valid, but other factors have come into play with a double “October surprise” for Republicans and Democrats alike.  The First October Surprise happened a few weeks ago when "pussy" entered the already absurd picture. This then became the pussy election; the P-word went mainstream when Donald Trump was audio recorded on a hot mic in 2005 making various lewd comments about women.  Suddenly, this train wreck of an election became a sick reality show.


Or maybe it was already that way.  This wasn't the first time we heard The Donald use the P-word. Back in February, he uttered it during a campaign stop.  Where was the outrage then? The Donald kept on moving and the rest of the hapless, overstuffed Republican Party gradually fell by the wayside. From about 17 candidates, Republican primary voters gave us a misogynistic, xenophobic, and racist choice for President. 


The 2016 election birthed “the year of the pussy.” Clint Eastwood sees our "pussy culture" as being a reason for voting for Trump.  A Russian diplomat sees the whole enchilada as bunch of "pussies" on all sides.  The P-word sumsed up the election at least as well as dishonesty and crazy.


The release of Trump's original comments came just before the second presidential debate, which was called "the lowest moment" in the history of presidential debates. It was Jerry Springer style politics; an appropriate characterization.  The election was already absurd before it got to this point with so many Republican candidates in the beginning, constant questions regarding Hillary’s political character, Trump mouthing off and shooting himself in the foot.  


The second debate swirled more around sex scandals than policy assessments, with The Donald parading out Bill Clinton's sex abuse accusers as if to say, if a Clinton can be president with all these women complaining, then so can I. That Bill is not running for president and Donald's shenanigan's have absolutely nothing to do with Hillary's qualifications seems bizarrely irrelevant to the voters - which makes it par for the course in 2016. Hillary’s husband had lots of sex with other women, so vote for a fellow sexual predator over the wife of the cheating husband.  Does that make any sense at all?  I cannot think of a better example of how far American democracy has declined than the fact that 45% or so of the American voting population will vote precisely that way. 


In keeping with the P-word motif, Donald's wife and former model, Melina, stylishly showed up at the second debate in a Pussy Bow Blouse.  That created a sensation among the esteemed voting population rushed out and bought every Pussy Bow they could find.  Do we need more proof of absurdity’s mass appeal?  It is revealing.  It is an opportunity for collective self-reflection. 


The P-word led to all manner of other irrelevant happenings. Female artists responded by painting with their pussies. Conservative media dork Sean Hannity waded into Trump's slutty campaign strategy by offering, shall we say, penetrating insights into Bill Clinton's accusers.  That's what we need in political discourse, right? Tabloid politics…welcome to "the desert of the real."


This caused me to research the origins of the P-word, apparently so important in the minds of voters.


Then, without warning, Hillary’s sticky email scandal reared its ugly head - again.  Pussy was apparently forgotten by our short attention span voters.  The FBI decided to take another look at Hillary’s email server after basically saying it was finished months ago.  The announcement struck like a bombshell.  The Second October Surprise regarded the contents of emails about the disgraced Anthony Weiner, who was lately sexting a 15-year-old.  The emails apparently are not directly relevant to Hillary herself.  They are about other things, involving Weiner’s wife, mentioning him in passing but the P-word definitely still applies here too.  


What are the voters to do with this choice between an unenlightened powered monger (Trump) and a rogue power monger (Clinton)?  Does Dishonesty really beat Crazy anymore?  It’s more complicated now, but the end result (a Clinton victory) is still the best odds as of this post.  The momentum has clearly shifted to Trump, however.  From a strictly art of campaigning perspective, Kellyanne Conway deserves credit for a possible Trump presidency. She deftly navigated difficult circumstances with an unpopular candidate saying crazy things on the national stage.  But Conway has handled things very well


For the past few weeks, Arizona, Iowa, Nevada, and Ohio teetered into Clinton territory, indicative of a potential Democratic landslide.  Now these states are swinging back and forth is a political tug of war. One day they are leaning Trump, the next leaning Clinton.  North Carolina and Florida were rather firmly for Clinton before the FBI announcement. Now they are truly toss-up states. Anything could happen(Most of this is according the the main website I follow on the election, fivethirtyeight.com.)


But even if Trump wins all the states I just mentioned, he is still short of winning the election. The Electoral Vote in such as case would be 273-265 in favor of Clinton.  That makes New Hampshire interesting. Though still a Clinton state as of this post, Trump has momentum in New Hampshire.  A Trump win there would produce the most absurd possible result of all, a 269-269 tie. Which would give us a President Trump, as the Republican controlled Congress would vote along party lines and choose the winner.  That’s the way the Constitution works.


Another interesting possibility is that Trump picks up a single electoral vote in Maine to go with New Hampshire.  In that case he wins outright 270-268. Heading in to next Tuesday, Clinton really needs a win in NevadaNorth Carolina or Florida to ensure New Hampshire is irrelevant.


Everybody is sick and tired of Hillary’s emails, so the ultimate effect of the Second October Surprise might be muted; just as everybody was sick and tired of The Donald’s sexist/racist antics in the First.  Pussygate turned out to be a nonevent in terms of electoral votes.  Trump actually became stronger in the swing states after the news media skewered him for bragging about groping women by their vagina.  What does all this say about us, as voting citizens?     


When I consider all those Pussy Bow Blouses being sold out, and the obsession with an email server in the face of all our legitimate national issues like privacy, job growth, national security, the environment, healthcare, and the Supreme Court, it seems self-evident that American voters are actually getting the election we so richly deserve. This is the high-tide of democracy in action. The more participation you get in politics (voting rights), the more absurd it becomes, not because the candidates are absurd but because the voters, those responsible for the primary selection process, are absurd in and of themselves. Dishonest and crazy, “pussy culture,” unenlightened and rogue, it turns out is a reflection of who we are as political people.  


Donald Trump claims this election is “rigged” and has lead us to believe he might not accept a Hillary victory without something about the election being contested.  This just shows you the basically delusional character of Trump.  This erratic and misinformed passion disqualifies him from my vote.  But Hillary has shown poor judgment with respect to her email server while in power and her uses and possible abuses of power through the years.  That ruthless nature certainly qualifies her for the presidency but I am more inclined to think differently about how to cast my vote.


In 2012 I voted for the Libertarian ticket and I will do so again in 2016.  Contrary to popular opinion, it is not a “wasted vote” – let me explain why I am voting this way and why it is worth it.  I live in Georgia, a state that was once almost in play because Trump was performing so badly – pre-Conway. But Georgia will now go for Trump no matter who I vote for.  


The Libertarian Party needs 5% of the popular vote on election day to qualify for federal campaign funding in 2020 (rather ironic actually, I wonder if they would take that money) and it makes it somewhat more legitimate as a true political party in many states.  Ballot access is assisted, though certainly not assured everywhere.  So, I am voting on that fact alone.  It is not as absurd as it might seem and certainly no stranger than the rest of this election. Surprising many people, the Chicago Tribune endorsed the Libertarian ticket in September  in what I think is an effective editorial. Trump can have Georgia and who knows what will happen next Tuesday?  This could be as close as the 2000 presidential election. 


My vote is not really for Gary Johnson, a guy who I admire in many ways for his political clarity and courage.  But he is rather ignorant on foreign affairs and his position on environmental issues makes him a challenge to vote for personally. “What’s Aleppo?” does not a qualified president make. But, on the positive side, he has a sense of humor that is otherwise lacking in this loathed election. His fake heart attack during a marijuana debate happened last year but seems to be an appropriate response to this election. His antics have nothing to do with being "presidential" and that is one reason I vote for him. I think the American political system needs more competition.  

The two-party system has failed us as a country and the voters are mostly too mediocre and uninformed to see that such a system is delivering the worst possible political candidates as choices for president. A stronger Libertarian Party won’t produce control of congress or anything of the sort. But it might force the traditional parties to become more accountable, as there will be a clear alternative now, even though most voters would be too shallow to take it for at least a decade of so.  At any rate, given the absurdity of the 2016 Presidential Campaign, I think such competition is good for the country. So why not vote for that, given the alternatives?

Besides, Libertarian VP candidate William Weld impresses me more than any other single candidate in this entire election cycle.  He is fair and thoughtful. He was right to state that this election feels "like a horror movie and we can't change the channel." I hope he runs for president in 2020.


This election is not rigged.  This election is a representation of our polarized, angry, shallow minded and all-too-nonprogressive society – the voters themselves.  The fact that Trump surged ahead when Hillary caught pneumonia and Hillary stormed back when Trump got lewd and then Hillary lost ground again with her bizarre, undying email server story shows that this election is not about anything of substance.  It is a high school level essay in conflict resolution.  We are all juveniles selecting the most powerful office in the world.  I am voting to guy rolling around on the stage faking a heart attack.  My vote counts…it is, in fact, highly relevant to the strangest election I have ever known.


In light of the general situation, my vote in Georgia goes to the man grabbing his chest and rolling around on stage in feigned pain.  There is no better metaphor for this absurd and obsessive election.