Science Fiction Book Review
Paolo Bacigalupi wrote a beautiful but painfully brutal novel set in a dystopian future Thailand. The writing is excellent but in a detached, scientific sort of way. The characters are difficult to connect with but I think that is the point. This is a future without food so the rules have changed back to survival of the fittest where relationships are made in a far more pragmatic way than in a world of excess. The novel is a warning but not one that is as obvious as the cudgel used in An inconvenient truth. All of the characters have long accepted that man has already seriously fucked up the earth and are now just trying to make their way within it. This is much more of a study of the human condition under extreme stress than anything else. Our generation is one without great world wars, so that is not an outlet to conveniently place our characters within to see how they react, instead Bacigalupi is forced to manufacture a setting where such extremes do exist. It’s not pretty but it is gripping.
The novel doesn’t fit into any specific genre but that is part of it’s allure. It’s got high technology elements to it in the form of the gorgeous windup girls that are supposedly little more than garish, Japanese sex toys. It has elements of steam punk to it with its dirigibles and hand cranked CPUs. It also has a bit of historical precedent to it, the riots and those that perpetrated them had a very Boxer Rebellion feel to them. But most of all, it is dark and very brooding.
To set some context, the world has gone through tough times. Genetically modified plants have created genetically modified diseases that have wiped out most plants to the point where almost all of the world’s food supply has been eliminated. What does still exist of the food supply are seed banks that are jealously guarded by global conglomerates doing anything they can to stay one step ahead of the mutations of the diseases that will ultimately wipe the seeds and humanity out. This leads these mega corporations to constantly be looking for new ways to expand their own stock to something that might permanently stay ahead of the disease curve and pull them out of this morass that their fore-bearers (us) created for them.
That leads us to follow one of these conglomerate’s agents in Thailand where he is looking for new seeds, new plants and something to help in this battle against hunger. What he really seems to be looking for is hope in a world that is in very short supply. He has several projects he is working through where he is forced to deal with the mundane bureaucracy of an Asian populace that is short on patience. While he is navigating these waters, a storm of discontent fueled mostly by resentment over the loss of power and national identity is brewing within the local populace. Things get out of hand and his mission turns into one of short term survival which quickly supersedes the global mission of long term survival.
Throughout the story we are introduced to the windup girl. The windups are automatons that were built sometime ago when luxury was commodity. They are very lifelike but were given herky-jerky movements to differentiate them from a crowd of humans. The logical fear was that with this technology they could easily be used as assassins or super soldiers so adding this artifice would at least make it easier to see them coming. In this futuristic Thailand, the windups are treated with disgust and paraded about almost like sideshow freaks. Perhaps this is a resentment of technology that brought us to this sorry state or simply the human need to feel like we are superior to other sentient beings. Whatever it is, the discrimination is palpable and painful to read. In the end, her story is just another story of oppression but no less interesting because of it.
These two characters and many others intersect throughout in a stew of simmering anger and pain with a garnish of malaise that makes for some good eatin’. Not the easiest read but it makes you think and I finished the book a changed person. Can you ask for anything more from words on a page?