Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl (Paolo Bacigalupi, 2009)

[H]ow little anyone cares to separate wheat from chaff, when all anyone wants to do is burn a field.”

Science fiction has become so political, or at least I keep selecting works that have political implications. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is another such example. Set after a global-warming catastrophe, the novel uses that context to explain its essentially steampunk background. As a result, environmental politics play a central role in the plot, culminating in a literal battle for supremacy between the trade and environment factions in a future Thailand.

Bacigalupi weaves his plot with threads from five viewpoint characters: a rising capitalist, a fallen capitalist, the incorruptible champion of the environment faction, his somewhat less noble second-in-command, and the eponymous windup girl, the illegal, genetically engineered “new person” whose actions trigger the novel’s climactic turn of events. His tapestry is richly colored by the sights, sounds, and smells of latter-day Bangkok. Street markets, urban filth, and sweltering heat all come to vivid life—but then something will jar the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief.

Part of this problem is technological and part political, though these aspects are obviously related. Bacigalupi uses environmentalist conceits to justify his steampunk setting, but he struggles in the attempt. The world is so far beyond peak oil—or petroleum usage is so strictly regulated—that human and animal power is commonly needed to generate electricity, and draconian carbon-dioxide limits are still enforced long after the damage has been done. Scarcely a solar panel or wind turbine is to be seen, while advanced genetic engineering is widespread.

The cast of character is well rendered in shades of gray, but the so-called capitalists and their allies are the obvious villains by default. Their behavior inevitably borders on crime or even acts of war, and that is somehow treated as normal business practice. The heavy-handed states presumably required to enforce the overbearing environmental regulations of Bacigalupi’s windup world would never tolerate such behavior unless they were sponsoring it, but the foreign corporations that threaten the Thai kingdom seem to be free agents.

Whether the author was writing from his political heart or simply playing with a fictitious fancy, there is a glimmer of rational hope in the novel’s closing acts. Hock Seng, the Chinese refugee who has seen his entire family murdered in previous pogroms, arms himself as Bangkok dissolves into civil war, learning at last that it “is possible to prepare for chaos.” Notably, though, in a story haunted by the environmental evils committed by humans upon the “natural world,” the definitive declaration that humanity is itself natural is put in the mouth of the archvillain Gibbons, a man possibly responsible for creating the worst of the genetically engineered plagues.

Almost everything is political these days, so we probably shouldn’t expect our fiction to be any different. The Windup Girl is a good example of the trend. Though Bacigalupi reaches too far with his political conceits, he does so with delightfully pungent, if awkwardly immediate prose and a good deal of baroque charm. His novel is hard not to enjoy, even if you occasionally have to put it down and shake your head.