Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009, A Year in Reading: Worst Books of the Year

As if my lack of enthusiasm for even the year's best books weren't bad enough, 2009 was also a year in which, unlike 2008, I was very much not stumped for choice when the time came to choose the year's worst reads.  Looking at this list, which contains two Hugo nominees and one of the most talked-about genre books of the fall, it's hard not to draw conclusions about at least some of the reasons for my reading malaise.  A lot of my reading this year was motivated by a desire to keep with the conversation and with SF fandom in general, and that has turned out to be a mistake.  I need to listen to my instincts.  The ability to trash the Hugo nominees from an informed position is surely not worth the heartache of such a lackluster year's reading.

As usual, these books are presented in ascending order of their stinkiness.
  • Saturn's Children by Charles Stross (review)

    This was one of the three books I read in preparation for my review of the Hugo-nominated novels.  I wasn't hopeful about this endeavor, but Saturn's Children, a parody of Heinlein's Friday in which a sexbot tries to find a reason for her existence after humanity's demise, still managed to sucker-punch me.  This is an unholy mess of a book, bloated well past the point of being even vaguely recognizable as a novel by a relentless litany of information that lacks even the elegance of a common infodump and drowns out its plot and characters.  Either an unfunny comedy or an absurd and unbelievable straight-faced story, Saturn's Children squats in the uncanny valley between these two modes, making for a punishing, seemingly interminable, and utterly inert reading experience.

  • Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (review)

    I expected to dislike Little Brother on the grounds of its well-publicized didacticism, but found to my surprise that it actually holds together as a work of fiction, and that though Doctorow lacks Neal Stephenson's skill of making infodumps interesting, he has at least made the ones in Little Brother easily skippable.  No, what makes Little Brother one of the worst books I've read this year is its appalling message.  The book's premise--teenager Marcus Yallow is imprisoned and tortured by Homeland Security for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and vows revenge--comes off like a self-satisfied, self-congratulatory fantasy of suffering in the name of a good cause, but it's Doctorow's choice to use that premise, and the very real abuses it riffs off, as the means of achieving the self-actualization of a privileged, middle class white kid that truly rankles, and it's Marcus's obvious prioritization of revenge on the people who have humiliated him over the well-being of the friend whom they still hold in custody that turns Little Brother into a morally bankrupt novel.  It is mind-boggling to me that anyone thinks this book has a valuable message for children.

  • The Magicians by Lev Grossman (review)

    It's interesting to note that the further we go down this list, the better written the books on it become.  On a technical level, The Magicians is quite readable, and in its first half even enjoyable.  I confess that had Grossman not leveraged the book's publication into a series of statements and essays about literature and genre that made him sound like a pompous ass, I might not have named The Magicians the year's very worst book.  But it still would have ended up on this list, on the strength of its complete and total lack of strength.  The Magicians is a novel that rests on the shoulders of giants and pretends to have climbed Everest.  Whether he's mimicking C.S. Lewis in his creation of a Narnia analogue with which the book's characters become obsessed (and leaving out that series's religious component, which is essentially to render it meaningless) or writing a Harry Potter pastiche when he describes the magical school at which they live (and ignores even the flawed and partial gestures towards social realism that peppered Rowling's novels) or following in the footsteps of authors like Susanna Clarke, China Miéville, and most of all M. John Harrison when he tries to imagine the meeting of the magical and the mundane (which he parlays into an excuse for his characters to feel sorry for themselves despite the fact that they are young, beautiful, powerful and rich) Grossman seems blissfully oblivious of how far short he's falling of the works he's chosen to emulate.  That obliviousness permeates the novel itself, which is so smugly satisfied with itself for positing a meeting between Harry Potter and the drugs-and-sex college experience that it fails to notice that nothing comes of that meeting.  The novel's cowardly ending, which sells out what little gravitas it had accumulated by introducing a consolatory escape hatch from reality, is the final twist of the knife that makes The Magicians a complete waste of the reader's time and energy.
Dishonorable Mentions:
  • Benighted by Kit Whitfield
  • Just After Sunset by Stephen King
  • The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year

A lot of bloggers and reviewers have been posting their decade's best lists, but I'm sticking with the end of year format.  On the whole, I've found most of the best of decade lists I've seen rather samey.  Past a certain resolution, one loses sight of the interesting, idiosyncratic choices that make best-of lists so much fun.  Besides, after blogging for nearly half the decade (a scary thought, that) I hope it doesn't need a best-of post to make it clear that I consider books like Air and Atonement, Cloud Atlas and Perdido Street Station to be among the best I read in the aughts.  More importantly, I think that to linger on these fantastic books would only cast a harsher light on 2009's reading.  I read 60 books in 2009, a slight drop from last year (mainly because the last few weeks have been swallowed up by a major work project, which unfortunately will continue monopolizing my time in the first quarter of 2010) which doesn't quite convey just how much lesser a reading year it was when compared to previous ones.  If I were making a list of the best books I'd read in the aughts, I don't think any of 2009's books would have a chance of making it onto it, and most of the selections below would probably, in another year, be only honorable mentions.  I'm going to have to give some thought to my reading habits and how I want to change them in order to keep this sad situation from recurring--one of my projects for 2009, for example, was to get back to reading fantasy, and though I hardly suffered through most of the fantasy books I read this year, concentrating on this genre left me with less time for mainstream fiction, which I think I'm going to try to concentrate on in 2010 (though as with the short stories there are several potential Hugo nominees I want to read before the deadline in February).

Strictly speaking, these are the best books I read in 2009 even if they don't measure up to best books from previous years, but I can't work up the same enthusiasm for them that I have in previous year's best lists, so I've changed the format of this list a little to indicate why I consider these books worthwhile despite their flaws.
  • Best Return to Form: Anathem by Neal Stephenson (review)

    The first book I read (and blogged about) in 2009, I was quite enthusiastic about Anathem when I first came away from it, then found that enthusiasm fading as its strengths receded in my mind and its flaws--the frequent infodumps and As You Know, Bob exchanges of dialogue, the blank and conveniently dim narrator, the flatness of the female characters and their near-constant accommodation of the narrator's needs and desires--became more prominent.  Upon a third evaluation, however, it occurs to me that these flaws point towards the very quality that makes Anathem worthwhile.  They are, after all, ubiquitous in Stephenson's writing, and it is one of his most important qualities as a writer that in his best books, he makes them not only tolerable but enjoyable and endearing.  After the earnest and interminable Baroque Cycle, Anathem shows us Stephenson rediscovering his sense of fun and his ability to infect readers with the fascination he feels for his subjects. 

  • Best Departure From Form: The City & The City by China Miéville (review)

    China Miéville followed the three Bas-Lag novels, including the paradigm-shattering Perdido Street Station, with a limp and watered-down children's book, and left me very nervous for his future as a writer.  In his determination to keep from being pigeon-holed as an author who works in a single secondary world, was he leaving behind the very qualities that made him worth reading?  The City & The City puts that question to rest.  It does, in fact, leave behind most of what we associate with Miéville's writing--the secondary world setting, the fantasy creatures, the emphasis on the gory and grotesque--but the story that's left behind, about a detective investigating a murder in a city that is two cities overlaid one over the other, is still a powerful and deeply weird story.  It's China Miéville, but not as we know him, and though I had my reservations about The City & The City, which I ultimately found too cold and neat (it lacks, in fact, the messiness and sprawl that characterized the early Bas-Lag novels), it certainly lays to rest my concerns that Miéville couldn't survive reinvention, and leaves me very curious to see what he does next.

  • Best Unexpected Pleasure: Thunderer by Felix Gilman (review)

    I went on quite a bit about the parallels between Gilman's debut, in which a pilgrim to a fantastic city unwittingly sets a supernatural menace on its citizens, and Miéville's Perdido Street Station, and I still feel that these are too prominent for the book to ever quite escape from out of Perdido's shadow.  Even within that shadow, however, Thunderer was one of the most satisfying novels I read this year--beautifully written and envisioned, with rounded, compelling characters.  Some of the imagery from the novel--the floating ship that gives it its name, the three-dimensional atlas of the fantastic city in which it is set, the main character's journey into alternate universe versions of that city--lingers with me still, and reminds me that sometimes one should read for strength of execution rather than originality.

  • Best Weird Book: Last Dragon by J.M. McDermott

    At times it seems that there's a sizable portion of genre fandom obsessed with either writing or finding the literary epic fantasy novel, one that elevates the genre above its simplistic and often reactionary roots.  In my admittedly limited forays into the various attempts at this holy grail, what I've found was usually the same familiar fare made grimmer and morally murky.  Which is fine as far as it goes, but not quite what I think of as literary.  McDermott's Last Dragon, a non-linear story about a warrior woman's pursuit of the man who massacred her people, which becomes a key component of the war for her nation's survival, comes out of left field to show us how it's done.  The result is, well, weird--I'm still not entirely clear what happens in certain scenes or what the solutions to certain mysteries are, or if McDermott even delivered those solutions--but also entirely satisfying.  It manages the difficult trick of hitting on the standard tropes of the epic fantasy story in a way that is stirring and engaging, while simultaneously making it clear that these are not the point of the novel, but rather the exploration of its characters and how they're affected by their situation. 

  • Best Survey of a Genre: The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt (review), Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (review), The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (review)

    I still haven't gotten around to reading Simon Mawer's The Glass Room, the fourth Booker nominated novel to catch my eye, but the three ladies on the ballot provide a very interesting panoramic view of modern historical fiction.  Wolf Hall gives us the history we know from history books and tend to think of as a play (or a period drama) whose immediacy is drowned out by unfamiliar customs and attitudes, and tries to make that history, and its actors, modern and familiar.  The Children's Book gives us history as a moment, or rather many moments, of revolution, the building blocks of our modern world falling into place before our eyes, though even as she describes its disappearance Byatt seems to be cataloging the old world down to the cutlery and furniture.  The Little Stranger gives us history in the wake of that revolution, as it ticks, almost imperceptibly, into the now, and is also a well done ghost story.  I had my problems with all of these novels--Wolf Hall is too wrapped up in its glorification of Thomas Cromwell, The Children's Book often feels less like a novel and more like a lecture, The Little Stranger plays its generic and mimetic elements against each other--though I still maintain that The Children's Book is the best of the three.  Taken together, however, they are an impressive display of skill, research, and fine writing, and if I felt that fantastic reading had drowned out other modes and genres this year, I can at least comfort myself with this brief but satisfying foray into historical fiction.

  • Best Overall Read: Warlock by Oakley Hall

    The one 2009 novel which, I feel relatively certain, would have made it onto this list in a stronger year.  Hall's deconstruction of the Western gets so many things right: it's beautifully written, switching effortlessly between the voices and perspectives of its wide cast of characters; it's intelligent and thought-provoking, raising thorny questions about the meaning of law and violence as it charts the rise and fall of Clay Blaisedell, a marshall brought in to rid the titular town of outlaws who finds himself unequal to the mantle of hero; best of all, it's deeply compassionate towards all its characters, taking their points of view each in turn and depicting them as compelling and comprehensible people no matter how vile their actions.  Like epic fantasy, the Western is constantly being tinkered with and reinvented in an attempt to divorce its romantic setting from its oversimplified underlying assumptions.  Turns out, Oakley Hall figured out how to do this back in 1958.
Honorable mentions:
  • Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009, A Year in Reading: Best Short Stories of the Year

Even more than 2008, 2009's short story reading was dominated by genre fiction (aided and abetted by the Torque Control short story club) and by reading specifically directed at finding worthy Hugo nominees for the 2009 and 2010 awards, which is to say recent stories.  I read only one non-genre collection this year, Jumpha Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth, and though it was an excellent read and is highly recommended, no single story from it lingers strongly enough in my mind to make it onto this year's best short fiction list, which is thus populated exclusively by recent genre stories.  I'm deeply fond of all of the stories on this list--I have nominated or plan to nominate all of them for the Hugo--but I feel the absence of mainstream and older fiction, or for that matter of reading fiction just for the pleasure of it and not in order to meet a deadline and do my duty by the Hugo award.  I plan to remedy that oversight in 2010 (once, that is, the Hugo deadline passes--I have some catching up to do on several online short fiction sources, and haven't even gotten around to the print magazines yet).  For 2009, however, these, in alphabetical order of their authors, are my favorite short stories.
  • "True Names" by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum (Fast Forward 2, available here)

    In my review of 2009's Hugo-nominated novellas, I wrote that "True Names" "combines both authors' strengths and favorite topics--Rosenbaum's penchant for surrealism and literary pastiche, not to mention the basic building blocks of his Hugo-nominated short story "The House Beyond Your Sky," and Doctorow's fascination with the way that social structures and conventions both shape and are shaped by politics and economics, and with post-singularity concepts of self ... This, no doubt, is to make "True Names" sound extremely strange, which it is, dizzyingly so at points. But it is also, fundamentally, a swashbuckling adventure, complete with sneering villains, threats of world domination and destruction, doomed love, a prince on the run from his guardian with his wise tutor, and battles to the death. ... on top of being a genuinely exciting adventure ["True Names"] is both clever and cleverly put together--the sheer mass of information required to fully grasp the rules under which the characters operate is nearly overwhelming, but Rosenbaum and Doctorow not only make it easy for us to learn their world, they make it fun."  There's not much to add to this praise, except that, having read Doctorow's Little Brother and the reviews of his latest novel Makers, I appreciate all the more just how remarkable and fruitful the collaboration between him and Rosenbaum was--it not only preserved his strengths as a writer, but eliminated the weaknesses that have festered in his solo fiction in recent years.

  • "It Takes Two" by Nicola Griffith (Eclipse 3)

    Griffith's novelette is the kind that benefits from as unspoiled a reading as possible, so I'll try to be vague: a female executive at a technology company, desperate to close a deal and frustrated by the boys' club mentality that has stymied her in the past, hacks her own brain to get ahead in business and has to deal with the consequences.  "It Takes Two" is flawed--its premise doesn't bear close scrutiny, and its construction of the men the protagonist tries to do business with is so simplistic as to verge on offensive--but these flaws are overshadowed by the Griffith's masterful control of the tension between the protagonist's revulsion at what she's done to herself and her desire to give in to artificially induced feelings and cravings.  The balancing act is maintained all the way to the story's end and the protagonist's final choice, making for an ending that is simultaneously sweet and horrific.  I can't think of a single story I've read this year that has better captured the way that technology, and its ability to change us, can inspire both awe and terror.

  • "A Journal of Certain Events of Scientific Interest from the First Survey Voyage of the Southern Waters by HMS Ocelot, As Observed by Professor Thaddeus Boswell, DPhil, MSc; or, A Lullaby" by Helen Keeble (Strange Horizons)

    Hands down my favorite story from 2009, this is a mermaid story with several interesting twists.  As the very long title indicates, the narrative alternates between the journal of a 19th century naturalist on a sea voyage, and a lullaby sung by his mermaid prisoner, so the first thing to say is that Keeble manages the two voices--the naturalist's fussy arrogance, the mermaid's lyricism--beautifully, but beyond its technical accomplishments, "Journal" is impressive for its nuanced construction of the two characters.  Both are flawed, both are prejudiced, both are trapped within assumptions--about race, gender, and culture--that blind them to the truth of their situation, and both are capable of kindness and of rising above their limitations.  And if that weren't enough, this is simply a good story, with several plot threads that carried me along--the mermaid's predicament, the ship's distress as other mermaids begin harrying it, the mermaid fairytales which are woven into the lullaby half of the story--and which the ending tied together in a very satisfying fashion.  Highly recommended.

  • "Lester Young and the Jupiter's Moons' Blues" by Gord Sellar (Asimov's, July 2008)

    "Back in those days, we were like mad scientists when it came to sounds," Robbie, the narrator of "Lester Young," tells us at the beginning of the story.  Which is what "Lester Young" feels like--the application of the same passionate intensity and sharp dissecting tools SF often turns to science to music.  "Lester Young" is a story about making music, listening to music, learning to play music, loving and growing disenchanted with music.  There's music in the language, too--in Robbie's cool-as-ice, dripping-with-jazz-slang narrative voice.  The story takes place in an alternate 1948 in which aliens have arrived on Earth, gifted humanity with technology that has changed if not quite improved our fortunes, and settled down to enjoy themselves.  Robbie is a jazz musician who is hired to tour on one of the aliens' spaceships as it makes its round of the solar system, but things, of course, are not all they seem.  There's a plot here that hangs together pretty well, but the beauty of "Lester Young" is in the scenery--the glimpses of a world simultaneously altered and depressingly the same in the wake of the aliens' arrival--and, of course, in the music. 

  • "The Moon Over Tokyo Through Leaves in the Fall" by Jerome Stueart (Fantasy Magazine)

    This is precisely the kind of story--melancholy, sedate, focused on its protagonist's angst--that I tend to recoil from, if only because they crop up so very often.  Stueart, however, makes this all too common approach his own with a combination of strong writing, a compelling main character, and an interesting and original SFnal McGuffin (I'd wonder about the presence of a clearly SFnal story in Fantasy Magazine's archives, but there are at least two other stories there which are purely mimetic, so).  Yumi is the much-younger wife of Matsui, a maker of piku-wines--wines that cause their drinkers to experience complete immersion in another person's memory.  The marriage has been floundering for some time, as Matsui's tastes and opinions become those of an old man's, leaving behind a woman with whom he'd previously had much in common, and Yumi finds a focal point for her frustration when Matsui becomes obsessed with his latest creation, a recreation of one of his memories which features a woman whom Yumi becomes convinced was Matsui's lover.  The contrast between a technology that allows one to experience another's memories with the growing alienation between the couple is obvious but well-done, and as foreign as they are to each other Stueart makes sure that we understand Yumi and Matsui's frustrations.  This is a quiet piece--the quietest on this list--but also an effective and moving one.

  • "The Island" by Peter Watts (The New Space Opera 2, available here, chapter 2)

    One might call "The Island" a distillation of Peter Watts's essence as a writer into a few thousand words.  There is a boatload of scientific jargon, a truly inventive concept of alien life, a lot of space-exploration technogeekery, some musings about the nature of consciousness and selfhood, and a profoundly dim view of human (or rather, sentient and even semi-sentient) nature.  It's a whole lot of fun and rather thought-provoking besides, all the more so because it takes for its template a rather prosaic premise--a road crew discovers that they are about to pave over a rare indigenous lifeform.  Sunday is a centuries-old crewmember on a spaceship sent ahead by humanity to seed the galaxy with space-gates, grown jaded and alienated by the monotony of her job and loss of contact (and perhaps even a common frame of reference) with humanity.  She's awakened from cryosleep on the latest build to discover that the site for it is the home of a strange new alien species which will be killed by the gate's activation, and must persuade the ship's AI and her fellow crewmember to save its life.  There's a lot of fun to be had following the trail of breadcrumbs Watts leaves us as Sunday puzzles out the alien's nature, but "The Island" tickles the emotion as well as the intellect--Sunday's ennui at the beginning of the story, and her anxiety at its end, are palpable.  This is a fine, extremely satisfying piece of good old fashioned hard SF with some distinctly modern, distinctly Watts-ian touches.
Honorable mentions:
  • Beneath Ceaseless Skies - BCS started publication in the fall of 2008, and 2009 is the first year that I've read through its archives.  After a rocky start--I described one of the first stories I read as "Inigo Montoya learns a valuable lesson about the futility of vengeance from a magical negro"--Beneath Ceaseless Skies turned out to have one of the highest hit-rates of any genre magazine, print or online, I've followed in the last two Hugo seasons.  The magazine's focus is on fantasy, and specifically the epic, secondary-world, steampunk and magical Western variety.  This is quite a departure from what one tends to find in online genre magazines, which as a rule veer towards literary fantasy and surrealism.  It's not my favorite brand of fantasy, but the novelty alone is noteworthy, and besides that BCS's editors have shown good judgment in picking out well-written, playful, imaginative stories.  Standout stories include "Kreisler's Automata" by Matthew David Surridge, a nicely convoluted tale involving fairies, mechanical men, and a cameo appearance by the young Mozart, and "The Alchemist's Feather" by Erin Cashier, in which an alchemist's homunculus becomes self-aware enough to understand that he is being used for evil.  BCS is also notable for publishing the only novella I've encountered in my trawl through online fiction sources, "To Kiss the Granite Choir" by Michael Anthony Ashley, a meaty tale about the culture clash between a deposed prince and the warrior culture in which he seeks sanctuary.

  • Genevieve Valentine - Up until a few weeks ago I knew Valentine mostly as a contributor to whose hilarious film- and TV-related posts were one of the blog's highlights, and as the author of an equally hilarious LJ.  She is also, it turns out, a writer, and 2009 was an extremely prolific year for her, with more than a dozen stories appearing in venues like Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine, and anthologies like Federations and Last Drink Bird Head.  Though no single story by Valentine made it onto my year's best list, all of were well written and worth my time, showcasing a strong control of voice and a quirky sensibility.  "Light on the Water," from Fantasy Magazine, is a love story between an office building and a hotel that manages to be touching despite its twee premise; "White Stone," also from Fantasy, is a nicely creepy story about Russian soldiers lying in wait for deserters during WWII, one of whom conceives an obsession with a snow sculpture; "Carthago Delenda Est," from Federations, is an interesting spin on the first contact scenario with a very well done narrative voice.  Taken together, they mark Valentine out as an author to watch. 

Friday, December 25, 2009


Let's get this out of the way: Avatar is a beautiful movie.  Stunningly, even shockingly beautiful, and not in the inert, static way of Watchmen or the more recent work of Tim Burton, which emphasize the creation of detailed, meticulously crafted tableaux.  Avatar is beautiful in a cinematic way.  The individual details of its locales are lovely, but it's the movement--walking, running, swimming, flying--within those locales that takes one's breath away.  And breathtaking as its beauty is, Avatar isn't eye-popping.  The film encourages you to forget that you're watching computer generated characters in a computer generated environment, and its use of 3D technology is subtle and thought-out.  Avatar is the third 3D film I've seen this year, and if Up treated the technology as an afterthought and barely made use of it, and Coraline went out of its way to poke the audience in the eye (and made me very queasy in the process) with Avatar James Cameron has fully integrated this new tool into his director's toolbox, using it not to draw attention to itself but to create a fully immersive environment.  There are people for whom this kind of aesthetic achievement is sufficient in itself to make a successful piece of cinema, and if you're one of those people then God be with you, but I'm not.  So having established just how beautiful Avatar is, let me pay it the greatest compliment that its beauty will buy from me: Avatar is beautiful enough that for most of its 160 minutes, that beauty is very nearly sufficient to distract from the fact that it is such a boring movie.

I use that word deliberately.  Avatar's problem isn't that it has a stupid plot or that it is racist, though both criticisms are true.  The latter should probably bother me more than it does, as it turns out that all the Dances With Aliens/What These Blue-Skinned People Need is a Honky/Pocahontas in Space jokes were dead accurate.  The thing is, though, we started making those jokes when the first trailers and plot descriptions rolled out.  We all knew what we were getting into when we bought out tickets, and it seems almost redundant to criticize a movie that wears its racism so proudly on its sleeve.  When the film's production designer obliviously explains that making the film's Others blue-skinned aliens freed the filmmakers to tell a story that would have been considered racist if told about humans, and doesn't see the problem in what he's saying despite the fact that the only thing distinguishing those aliens from stereotypical Native Americans is their blue skin, what is there for a humble blogger to add?  Of course, the very fact that such opinions are held and expressed means that it isn't pointless to criticize Avatar and films like it for their racism, and I'm grateful to those who have done that work already, but that racism is not, to my mind, a problem that could have been fixed and whose repair would have made Avatar a better film, like the Nigerian characters in District 9.  Racism is baked so deeply into the film's makeup that if Avatar were not racist, it would be a completely different movie.  This is, perhaps, desirable, but it's not a particularly meaningful criticism of the film as it turned out, nor the reason that it fails.

Similarly, when initial reviews of the film called it technologically groundbreaking but moronically plotted, my reaction was: And?  So?  Therefore?  This is a James Cameron movie we're talking about, right?  Cameron is one of my favorite filmmakers.  Aliens and Terminator 2 are films that I can never get enough of.  I saw Titanic twice at the movie theater, and not for the love story.  I even like The Abyss, which a goodly portion of Cameron fandom seems to consider a snoozefest.  But as much as I love his movies, I can't deny that technologically groundbreaking but moronically plotted is a pretty accurate description of each and every one of them.  Avatar's plot--a human marine infiltrates the native population of an alien planet in an attempt to persuade them to move away from a priceless resource his employers want to get at, goes native, leads alien revolt--is not significantly dumber than that of any of Cameron's other films, and neither is it a huge break with tradition for him to cast a black-hearted, baby-killing military-industrial complex as the film's villain while making sweeping, vastly oversimplified statements about the wonders of nature and the evils of technology. 

The reason that Cameron's previous films worked despite their silly and simplistic plots is that he has an almost preternatural talent for writing engaging action narratives within the boundaries of those stupid premises.  It's a very simple formula--a sequence of set pieces in which the characters encounter and overcome a life-threatening challenge, each iteration raising the stakes and ratcheting up the tension while also laying the groundwork for the film's culminating life-threatening challenge and the method by which the characters overcome it--and Cameron's gift is the ability to string together these challenges in a way that seems organic, and to build towards the film's climax without letting the story go slack or overwhelm the viewer.  At the same time, Cameron knows how to write characters--not as Dostoevskian portraits of complexity and contradiction, but as recognizable and easily distinguishable individuals.  At the end of the wakeup from cryo scene in Aliens, we know most of the important marine characters--Vasquez is a butch woman, Hudson is a clown, Gorman is a green officer, Bishop is a robot.  None of these are particularly nuanced or subtle characterizations, and they are never expanded upon, but they are vivid and effective, so that later on in the film, when Hudson goes to pieces, or Vasquez and Gorman die a badass death together, we're affected.  Cameron can craft these kinds of plots and characters because he knows how to write essentially, making plot points and lines of dialogue do double and triple duty, leaving not a single ounce of fat on any of his narratives.  In Aliens, Hicks gives Ripley his locator bracelet.  It's a gesture of friendship and perhaps nascent romance, which brings Hicks into focus and sets up his greater importance in the film's second half.  Later, Ripley gives the bracelet to Newt, as a way of establishing their mother-daughter bond.  At the end of the film, Ripley uses the bracelet to find Newt in the queen's lair.  A single prop fuels two character dynamics and a major plot point.

There are, in other words, two James Camerons.  There's the detail-obsessed technophile, who invents new kinds of submersible cameras with which to film the wreck of the Titanic on the ocean floor, recreates the ship's interior down to the wallpaper and table settings, waits twelve years for filmmaking technology to catch up to his vision before he makes a movie, and then uses that technology as if he's been working with it his whole career.  And there's the writer, who knows how to sweep viewers along into his story, create characters whom the audience will immediately latch onto and wish to see triumph, and arouse fear and tension when those character are put in harm's way.  The problem with Avatar, the reason that it is a beautiful but boring movie, is that only one of those Camerons turned up to work.  When Avatar reaches for our emotions, it reaches exclusively for a sense of wonder at its beauty.  Not joy at the characters' triumphs, not fear for their lives, not love or hate or horror, only wonder.  Yet for all that emphasis on wonder, there is not a single scene in Avatar which is the equivalent of the "I'm the king of the world!" scene in Titanic--no moment in which we experience the characters' happiness vicariously.

The reason for that is that Avatar deliberately short-circuits that vicarious reaction by leaving its characters out of the equation.  Avatar's characters, and particularly Jake Sully, the human lead, aren't people in their own right, but avatars for the audience.  Their purpose in the film is to provide us with a point of view from which to see its beauty.  Jake is a blank, a black hole at the center of the film (and quite stupid to boot--there is not a single moment when one senses that he can guess the consequences his actions, no matter how obvious those consequences might be) and this is entirely deliberate.  His purpose is to give us a window on Cameron's technological accomplishment, but because no matter how immersive 3D technology is, we never forget that we're sitting in a movie theater, the only reaction we have to that accomplishment is wonder.  We don't feel joy, we don't feel exhilaration.  We don't feel like the king of world.  Cameron knows this, so he doesn't bother to make Jake feel these feelings either, and neither does he try, as he did in his previous films, to create tension or fear.  What's left is a plot we all recognize, whose beats are slow and predictable.  It's pretty easy to guess which characters will live and which will die, and since Cameron has done so little work to invest us in them, it's hard to care about either outcome.  And thus Avatar becomes boring.

It's interesting to look back on 2009's science fictional film output.  At the end of a decade so thoroughly dominated by comic book and superhero films, 2009, through a confluence of scheduling issues, saw these drop away (except for the abysmal Wolverine) to make room for a slate of, at least on paper, very interesting science fiction projects.  Even if we discounted the extruded science fiction products like Transformers 2 and Terminator: Salvation on the one hand, and the independent and semi-independent outsider efforts like Moon and District 9 on the other, we'd still be left with a whole raft of bold, risk-taking films: Watchmen, which tried to adapt one of the most difficult, critically beloved, and unwelcoming graphic novels ever written; Star Trek, a reboot of a franchise worn into the ground by its previous handlers and left behind by most of its fans; 9, a steampunkish animated film geared at adults (which, with its emphasis on visuals over plot and characters, feels like an appetizer for Avatar); Avatar, a lavishly expensive experiment in an untested technology from one of the most famously temperamental and self-indulgent directors in the business.  Such a wide variety of styles and approaches, and yet nearly all of these films ran the gamut from beautiful failures to deeply flawed successes.  Moon is the best science fiction film of the year, but it's also the one whose ambitions were slightest--a short chamber piece whose success was derived mainly from the strong performance at its center.  It's the cinematic equivalent of a short story, and though these are rare enough that efforts like Moon should be cosseted and protected like hot-house flowers, I'm also partial to the space operas and planetary romances to which the cinematic medium is so uniquely suited.  It's been a long time since we've seen a successful one of these, and if James Cameron can't even deliver one up, what hope is there for the future?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Putting Away Childish Things: Dexter Goes Fourth

After four seasons, it's easy to become blasé about the magnitude of Dexter's accomplishment.  In a television landscape in which so many shows flare brightly and briefly and then go to pot, and others are cut off in their prime, and others still are content to wallow in carefully maintained mediocrity, Dexter is that rare artifact--a series that has maintained, with some peaks and troughs, a high and highly satisfying level of quality for four years.  It's not a perfect show by any means.  It relies too heavily on clomping, obvious dialogue and an times insultingly over-explanatory voiceover; its pacing is often off, with seasons dragging in their middles and racing towards their endings; it tends to shunt off interesting minor characters into uninteresting, dead-end plotlines.  The fourth season, just now concluded, suffers from all these flaws as well as other, more serious ones, which we'll discuss below.  But it also displays the show's strengths--a rollicking, twisty plot, well done intrigue and high-intensity storytelling, and some of the best character work currently on our screens.  Dexter maintains this quality, as I've written in the past, by constantly reinventing itself, while holding fast to its core elements.

The fourth season is thus simultaneously a break with tradition and return to the show's roots.  After two seasons that deliberately broke with it, the fourth season returns to the format established by the first--Dexter playing a game of cat and mouse with another serial killer.  This time, however, Dexter is the predator, insinuating himself, under a false name and false pretenses, into the life of his quarry, a killer known as Trinity (John Lithgow, in a chilling, magnificently creepy performance) who has evaded capture for thirty years while killing dozens of people.  But if previous seasons portrayed the battle of wits between Dexter and his psychopathic antagonist as something self-contained, a game which Dexter could, for the most part, control and keep separate from his normal life, the fourth season is primarily concerned with the collapse of these barriers, between Dexter the serial killer and Dexter the upstanding citizen.

As the fourth season opens, Dexter is a family man: married to Rita, living in the suburbs, raising his two stepchildren and infant son, Harrison.  The loss of the privacy he enjoyed as a single man living on his own on the one hand, and the new responsibilities of a husband and father on the other, leave Dexter very little time or space in which to pursue his second life.  The season begins by treating this dilemma as a joke--Dexter can't get around to killing his latest quarry because he's kept hopping by the demands of job and family, and just as he's about to carve the man's body up, Rita calls him with an urgent request that he pick up medicine for Harrison--but as it draws on, the pressure it causes begins taking its toll.  Rita becomes impatient with Dexter's secretiveness and emotional distance, and suspicious of the occasional flare-ups of his violent temper.  The increased demands on his time make Dexter sloppy and frazzled--he kills an innocent man, having rushed to the conclusion of his guilt based on circumstantial evidence, antagonizes and arouses the suspicions of Quinn, a detective in his department, and even gets himself arrested while in hot pursuit of Trinity.  Despite his scrambling and furious effort, Dexter's life keeps slipping through his fingers--his marriage crumbling, his camouflage fading, and Trinity constantly one step ahead of him.

The result is the show's darkest and most tragic season.  In its previous seasons, Dexter showed us its main character playing childish games, rebelling against the rules laid down for him by his adoptive father and toying with the possibility of giving his murderous urges freer rein.  These experiments invariably ended in failure, with Dexter learning, as I wrote in my third season write-up, that "Though none of the people who love him will ever truly know him, their love is worth so much more than the love of the kind of person who would accept him for what he is."  As the fourth season begins, Dexter has finally taken this lesson to heart.  He's given up on the games and experiments of his bachelor life, and fully committed to hiding his true nature from the people whose love he wants--Rita, his children, his sister Deb.  What he discovers is that he may not be able to have this love: that he can't have a happy marriage with woman to whom he is constantly lying and from whom he is hiding the most important part of himself; that his children are rapidly outstripping him in their emotional development; that his sister won't be swayed from investigating their father's past, and thus coming closer to the truth about Dexter.  The same in-between-ness that makes Dexter such a successful character--monstrous enough to be interesting but human enough to be appealing--may also doom him to a life of unhappiness.  He's not so much of a monster that he can't love or desire the love of others, but he may be too much of a monster to keep it.

Even worse, during the fourth season Dexter is constantly accosted by characters who insist that he is not only going to fail as a husband and father, but that he's going to hurt his family terribly.  A fellow psychotic who murdered her husband and daughter (Christina Cox, in one of the series's most memorable guest appearances) promises him that one day he'll snap and do the same.  The ghostly apparitions of Dexter's father Harry warn him that he won't be able to hide his murderous activities forever, that his increased engagement with the world will in fact hasten the day he's discovered, and that Rita and the children will be destroyed by his arrest and execution.  When Dexter learns that Trinity, far from being a loner, is a family man like himself, he puts off killing his quarry in order to learn how to juggle serial killing and a normal life, but Trinity's happy home life turns out to be a facade.  His wife and children live in terror of him, with hints of physical and even sexual abuse, and Dexter is forced to wonder whether he too will have such a corrosive effect on his family.  It is with a growing unease that we viewers, along with Dexter, dismiss these concerns.  It seems impossible that Dexter could ever hurt his family--on the contrary, his uncontrolled violent urges invariably express themselves at the suggestion of a threat to Rita and the children.  Dexter's arrest seems more likely, especially given his growing sloppiness over the course of the season and Deb's slow closing in on the connection between him and the first season's Ice Truck Killer, but Dexter's evaded the law for long enough that his capture doesn't seem like a foregone conclusion.  By the time the ugly truth about Trinity's family is discovered, however, Dexter's own home life is so strained that it's hard not to wonder with him whether twenty years by his side will have the same effect on Rita and the children. 

In previous seasons, Dexter's fears that he might be damaging his loved ones, or might simply not be human enough to function as they need him to, were always allayed by the story's conclusion.  By killing the season's antagonist and rejecting the freer expression of his monstrousness that they offered him, Dexter would shut down the possibility of danger--from himself or from external sources--to his family, while reinforcing the good that he was doing in their lives.  The fourth season makes it clear that that good is inextricably bound with damage.  When Deb confronts Dexter with the knowledge that the Ice Truck Killer was his brother, Dexter first feigns shock, and then genuinely apologizes for bringing such a horror into her life, making her the target of a monster simply for being his sister.  Deb angrily shuts him down: "If you hadn't been in my life, I wouldn't be who I am.  You've given me confidence and support.  You've been the one constant... the one constantly good thing in my life."  She's right, of course--it's impossible to imagine Deb growing up with only the emotionally distant Harry as her family and still becoming the awesome, confident, strong person we know (and though this post is mainly about Dexter, I would be remiss not to note that the fourth season continues Deb's growth as a person and a detective, and that Jennifer Carpenter continues to deliver a stellar performance in the role)--but at the same time Dexter's right that his presence has twisted and distorted Deb's life, if for no other reason than that, unbeknownst to her, Deb is in the classic position of the healthy sibling of a sick child--Harry was neglectful of her because he was so busy trying to manage Dexter's psychosis. 

By the same token, as good as Dexter is for Rita and the kids, he also damages them, at no point so horribly as at the end of the fourth season, when, in the most prosaic and tragic way possible, Dexter's vigilante activities come back to haunt him.  Returning home after disposing of Trinity's body, Dexter discovers that the older man, having learned Dexter's true identity and eager for revenge, has killed Rita.  So not only has Dexter caused Rita's death, but he's orphaned her children (in fact, Dexter is responsible for the deaths of both their parents--he framed their abusive father Paul for drug possession and got him sent to prison, where Paul was killed in a fight) and possibly doomed his son Harrison, who witnessed his mother's murder, to the same psychosis that afflicts him.

What makes this ending all the more grim is that it comes as a counterargument to the seemingly hopeful reply that Dexter gives to the season's underlying question.  The fourth season is essentially the drawn out process of Dexter's life falling apart under the combined weight of his two personas.  In the series finale, Dexter for the very first time not only acknowledges the impossibility of continuing in this fashion, but chooses his family over his murderous activities.  He takes the huge step of admitting that he wants to stop killing, but whether or not that is even possible for someone with his deep-seated psychological trauma, his progress is undone by the loss of Rita, his reason for wanting to change.

This would all make for an extraordinarily satisfying and well-done season if it weren't for one very big problem--Rita herself.  Dexter has always walked a fine line where Rita is concerned, somehow avoiding the ever-present danger of making her seem like a deeply deluded and even pathetic character--a woman who has fallen in love, married, and had a child with a serial killer, a man she doesn't really know.  It did so by insisting that not only did Dexter have genuine feelings for Rita, but that the two shared a connection that ran deeper than the secrets Dexter kept from her, that at their core they wanted the same things.  Even so, there's no avoiding the fact that much of the romance in Dexter and Rita's relationship was rooted in Dexter's lies and Rita's willingness to interpret them in a way that best suited her desires and the image of the life she wanted.  When Rita discovers that she's pregnant, she rejects Dexter's first few marriage proposals for being utilitarian and unfeeling, telling him that she wants a proposal from the heart.  In a darkly demented scene, Dexter cribs lines from the confession of a woman who murdered a man she was obsessed with in order to propose to Rita properly, which she tearfully accepts as a true expression of his feelings for her.  Once they're married, however, it becomes impossible for Rita to avoid seeing that Dexter is holding back a vital part of himself.  If in previous seasons Dexter used half-truths and careful elisions to maintain a balance between exposing himself emotionally and concealing what he was, in the fourth season these are insufficient.  In couples therapy with Rita, he emotionally explains that he's afraid to let her see his dark side for fear that she'd reject him.  Rita tearfully promises not to do so, but what the fourth season stresses is that this promise only comes because she doesn't understand the full extent of Dexter's darkness.  Every step forward in Dexter and Rita's relationship is only achieved because Dexter has found a new way to lie, massaging the truth about himself in a way that makes Rita think he's being more open while still concealing the most important part of it.

None of this would be a problem if it weren't for the writers' handling of Rita herself, who stops being that subtle blend of obliviousness and deep sympathy and becomes a nag and a shrew.  Again and again, Rita is painted as a spoilsport, who interrupts Dexter's nocturnal activities and the flow of the plot in order to demand prosaic things like medicine for Harrison's ear infection or Dexter's presence at Thanksgiving dinner.  None of these are, of course, unreasonable expectations, and it has been enormously dispiriting to read reactions to the season that have castigated Rita for being a bitch and cramping Dexter's style.  "Rita the big fat nag returns this Sunday when she guilt-trips Dexter into escorting the kids on a camping trip. Girlfriend needs to either accept the fact that her husband has a higher calling that involves killing bad people or simmah down now," writes TV Guide's Michael Aussiello, and TWOP's Dexter recapper Joe R wonders whether the writers "know they've written Rita past the point of no return for most fans."  When really, Rita's sole crime is that she believes the lies Dexter has told her, that she isn't aware of his second life, and that she expects him to be a full and equal partner in the marriage he chose to enter into.  The problem is, these are exactly the reactions the show's writers are courting, not only by marginalizing Rita as a point of view character and locking us into Dexter's view of their marriage, but by using her to spoil the audience's fun, to interrupt the story we want to see--Dexter's pursuit and capture of Trinity.

Rita's death, though not really a refrigeration--it not only doesn't motivate Dexter but takes away his main motivation to change, and revenge is impossible because an unwitting Dexter had already killed Trinity before discovering Rita's body--serves to flatten her character.  She can no longer make demands on Dexter, no longer complicate his life.  She exists now solely as a saintly and tragic figure who might have granted Dexter salvation, not the damaged and slightly screwed-up person with whom he had a loving but troubled marriage (and her death comes at the end of a season finale that sweeps away all the problems in that marriage and paints Rita in a suddenly saintly light as she once again promises Dexter to accept him along with his demons).  Add to that the fact that the fourth season seemed to take far too much pleasure in depictions of women's suffering--Trinity kills two women and a man on screen, and whereas the man's death is bloody but clearly driven by rage, when Trinity kills the women it's clearly a sadistic urge that's driving him, the desire to see them in terror, which they oblige; Quinn's girlfriend is so desperate for her father's approval that she kills for him, and realizing that he doesn't care for her, kills herself; Rita's death, though not seen, was clearly in the same fashion as Trinity's first victim--and it's hard to keep seeing Rita as a person rather than a plot device.

That said, I am very much looking forward to Dexter's fifth season. After all, my main problem with the series this season--the writing for Rita's character and the manner in which she was killed off--won't be an issue next year, and there are so many questions I'd like to see answered, so many possible avenues of story the show could go down.  Will Dexter be raising his stepchildren and son?  Will Deb finally make the last logical connection and discover his true nature?  Will Quinn continue his investigation of Dexter?  Most importantly, will Dexter commit fully to Harry's code, cutting off all human contact, or will he reject it completely and become a full-fledged monster?  Every time Dexter delivers a triumphant conclusion to an excellent season, I find myself praising it and nervously hoping that the next season will be the show's last--after all, how much longer can the writers keep up this streak?  I have the same reaction to the fourth season, mainly because it feels like crunch time--Dexter's lost most of what was keeping him human, and in the wake of that loss he needs to make a final choice between his two personas.  After four years, Dexter's writers have certainly earned enough indulgence from me to believe that they can pull off that story successfully, and who know?  Maybe even keep going after it.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi's debut novel, The Windup Girl, reads like an extended version of his short stories.  It is set in the future introduced in his 2005 short "The Calorie Man," in which the global economy has been brought to its knees by oil collapse, and genetically engineered plagues have killed many people and most naturally occurring grains and crops, creating a 'calorie monopoly' of biotechnology companies who sell their disease-resistant, sterile strains, whose copyrighted genomes they protect with ruthless efficiency, to the starving nations of the world.  It takes place in the same Bangkok which was the setting of Bacigalupi's 2006 story, "Yellow Card Man."  Its characters are either transplants from these stories or parallels of their protagonists, and its themes are the same grim fare that permeates all of Bacigalupi's output.  This is both a very good and very bad thing.

It's a good thing because Bacigalupi is one hell of a writer, and the same skill that has earned him accolades and award nominations, and made his debut collection, Pump Six and Other Stories, one of the essential genre collections of the decade, is very much on display in The Windup Girl.  More than any other writer currently working in science fiction, Bacigalupi knows how to make the future palpably, plausibly horrific, and what sets The Windup Girl apart from other If This Goes On novels is that instead of imagining the complete collapse of civilization (the go-to technique of many mainstream writers dabbling in SF) it tells us what happens after that collapse--or, to take a dimmer view, acknowledges that such a collapse would take a very long time, and that human society would have time to regroup and reshape itself even while in its midst.  Much as it extrapolates from the present day, The Windup Girl isn't telling the story of the near future in which the wages of our wasteful lifestyle and unthinking expectations of abundance come due.  It takes that future for granted, and tells us what happens next. 

In the Bangkok of the novel, the burning issue of the day are the first stirrings of a second Expansion--the possibility that international trade and travel on a 20th century scale might once again become a reality, that the world is once again becoming smaller and easier to traverse.  It's a possibility that sparks a power struggle in the Thai kingdom's government, between the ministry of Trade, eager to embrace the opportunities of this new day and rejoin the free market, and the ministry of Environment, whose mandate has, for decades, been to keep the kingdom in a state of near isolation--to destroy contaminated crops and livestock, quarantine the victims of the ever-mutating plagues, regulate carbon emissions, and keep the agricultural conglomerates from gaining a toehold in the country and turning it into a client-state, to which end Thailand has closed its borders to nearly all importation of biological material.  These are not, by and large, tasks that endear an organization to the public, and the ministry's troops, called white shirts, pursue them with such brutality and tolerate such widespread corruption within their ranks that hatred of them is kept in check only by an even greater fear.  With Trade on the ascendancy and the second Expansion on the horizon, that fear is muted, and the stage is set for a scramble for dominance that escalates, over the course of the novel, from espionage-driven cold war to strong-arm tactics to urban warfare.

All of this is to make The Windup Girl sound much more purposeful than it actually is.  A lot happens in the novel--the calorie man Anderson Lake lies his way into Bangkok in search of the kingdom's seed bank, which his employers, an agricultural company, want to plunder for fresh genetic material, to which end he volunteers to bankroll Trade's strike against Environment; white shirt officers Jaidee and Kanya respond to Trade's brazen flaunting of quarantine and embargo laws by clamping down on Lake and other foreign businessmen, and find themselves caught between two giants; former shipping magnate Hock Send ("Yellow Card Man"'s Tranh, renamed in the novel), who fled ethnic cleansing in Malaysia with just the clothes on his back, plots and schemes to regain his fortune; and the title character, Emiko, a genetically engineered being created to be a dutiful servant who was abandoned by her Japanese employer when he left Thailand, evades the white shirts, who would kill her on sight, by securing the protection of a pimp--but I wouldn't go so far as to call any of these events a plotline.  A plot is a journey from one point to another, a story with a discernible shape.  In The Windup Girl, Bacigalupi deliberately avoids giving his characters' narratives such a shape, repeatedly allowing their stories to jump the tracks, introducing false starts and false bottoms.

Again and again, we leave a certain character's point of view just as they've hit on a course of action which, they believe, will bring them to their objective, only to discover, when we rejoin them, that an event outside their control has thrown a monkey wrench in the works and forced them to retreat and hatch a new plan, which is dismantled in its turn.  Lake, for example, wants to make a deal with trade minister Akkarat.  First he's rebuffed, then the white shirts make a violent strike against Trade and Lake is embraced, then his ploy to gain the inner circle's trust backfires and Akkarat has him tortured, then he proves his innocence and gets his employers access to the seed bank, then the coup is achieved without his help and Lake is dismissed, then he gets sick and is abandoned to his fate.  Lake is by far the most powerful and privileged of the novel's characters, and yet like all of them he's buffeted by events, neither comprehending nor controlling them to any meaningful degree, and influencing them in ways he doesn't really understand and whose consequences he quite frequently fails to predict.  Similarly, The Windup Girl can't be said to be a novel of the struggle between Trade and Environment, which the reader pieces together from glimpses, snatches of conversation, and from the chaotic, partial view most of the characters have of it.  Rather it is, like Bacigalupi's short stories, the story of how one lives in the kind of world that gives rise to these struggles, and of how that world came to be.

Which is where the bad part comes in.  What's good about The Windup Girl is exactly what's good about Bacigalupi's short stories.  Hock Seng's chapters read like what would happen if Bacigalupi sat down to rewrite "Yellow Card Man" again and again, each time with slight variations.  Other characters' narratives similarly recapitulate attitudes and observations from Bacigalupi's stories.  Like the stories, their purpose seems to be first and foremost to create a sense of urgent dread, to impress upon the readers the fervent and genuine belief that it is all--oil, food, clean air and water, civilization itself--about to run out.  The problem is that what works in a short story is sometimes a poor fit for a novel.  As skilled as Bacigalupi is at evoking dread, he can't keep The Windup Girl from being, at points, slack and repetitive.  If the space restrictions of a short story or novelette gave him just enough room to find just the right words to use as a scalpel, the same concepts expressed in hundreds of thousands of works start to feel more like a sledgehammer, and towards the end of the novel Bacigalupi seems to have run out of ways to hammer in his point.  "Yellow Card Man" was harrowing, but Hock Seng's narrative loses a little more of its bite every time the old man flashes back, yet again, to the massacres in Malaysia, or laments, yet again, his reduced circumstances.  By the end of the novel, the repeated failures of his get-rich schemes have slid from tragedy towards farce.

There's a problem here that run deeper than recycled material, though, and that is that Bacigalupi is repeating not only his stories' plots, but their emphasis on the doom that awaits us--not the characters, us.  By doing so, he has made his novel something beyond plotless.  He has made it self-annihilating.  With only one exception, each of the narratives in The Windup Girl trends towards entropy--not only towards the failure of the characters' plans, but towards the loss of the ground they've already gained and sometimes of their lives.  And the destruction runs even deeper--Bangkok itself is overrun by the end of the novel, which holds out little hope for the human race.  This is a problem not because bleak endings are depressing, but because of the goal of that bleakness.  All of Bacigalupi's careful worldbuilding is undone so that The Windup Girl can be a statement about the present, a wagging finger--like the most simplistic of outsider SF apocalypse novels--about what might happen If This Goes On.  It is, perhaps, foolish to have expected Paolo Bacigalupi to have written any differently, but once again the novel format undercuts his message.  He's asking us to do a lot of work, to invest ourselves emotionally and intellectually in a whole world, for hundreds of pages rather than a few dozen.  When he destroys that world just to make his point, the feelings of frustration and resentment that destruction causes overwhelm that message.

This is doubly frustrating because there are hints throughout The Windup Girl that it might have been a different, more ambiguous, less didactic novel.  The one character who not only survives but gains ground in the devastation of the novel's ending is Emiko, who roams the ruins of Bangkok, free of the white shirts' persecution and the brutality of her johns, and who ends the novel by meeting a 'genehacker' who offers to give her fertile children (Emiko and others like her are sterile), reasoning that her kind is better suited to survival in this new world because it is immune to the diseases that have made it such a hell.  As the novel stands, this ending feels like a non sequitur--Emiko has expressed almost no desire for children and very little fellow feeling for other windups.  But it's a hint of a future for humanity--or its engineered descendants--that chimes with other elements in the novel.  There is a repeated emphasis in The Windup Girl on the futility of trying to recapture the past--Hock Seng's repeatedly-frustrated desire to be a magnate again, research into a cheap, portable energy source that provides Lake with cover as he searches for the seed bank, or the people of Bangkok, who are quite literally holding back the ocean, building levies and sea walls to keep the city from being swallowed by rising sea levels.  But the past is gone, Jaidee tells Kanya near the end of the novel.  What matters isn't cities but people, and those people might be windups, inheriting the earth from humanity, and perhaps even its spiritual successors--a repeated concern of the Thai characters is the proliferation of ghosts in the city, virtuous dead who have no one to reincarnate into because the dead humans outnumber the living ones.

It's a reading that might have been satisfying if the windups themselves were better sketched, but we only meet Emiko, who spends most of the novel either fearing for her life, being brutalized and raped (in two extremely graphic and uncomfortable scenes in which Bacigalupi oversteps the boundary between grimness and torture porn) and expressing the genetic limitations on her personality that incline her to meekness and servility by chastising herself for not being a more pliant sex slave.  It's a narrative that manages to be both self-pitying and self-loathing.  We only meet one other windup, very briefly, and from what little we see of her personality she seems to be the same person as Emiko under less dire circumstances.  If this is the future of humanity, it's a boring, limited one.  No wonder Bacigalupi seems more interested in the doomed, but infinitely more vibrant, human characters, and no wonder he pours more energy into their narratives than Emiko's, which comes to seem almost perfunctory--yet more abuse, yet more self-loathing, yet another near escape.  Ultimately, the destruction at the end of the novel rings truer than the hope it holds out for the windups' salvation--it seems to be where Bacigalupi's heart was.

Well written and impressive as it is--and this is still a work by one of the major voices working in the genre, if not a major work in its own right--The Windup Girl is undone by the ambiguity at its heart.  Not just because it's an agglomeration of short stories trying to be a novel, but because it can't decide where its focus should be--in the future or in the present.  This is a problem endemic to cautionary SF, and may be the reason that much of the environmentally themed science fiction we've seen in recent years has taken place in the near future--once you take the time to imagine the future as a world in its own right, it's hard to keep an eye on the present and on the developments you're trying to warn against.  It is surely one of the reasons that he's gained so much acclaim in recent years that in his short stories, Paolo Bacigalupi has found a balance between worldbuilding and science fiction as a warning about the present, but The Windup Girl demonstrates that he's yet to find a way to translate that ability to novel length works.