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.

5 comments:

Alexander said...

Interesting review. I think you're ultimately too harsh on this work though. I found it a lot more coherent, exciting and satisfying than you appeared to, in line with your critique perhaps it has something to do with my not having read the prior short stories set in the same universe.

I liked the pace and underlying story of the novel, and thought there was a lot of intelligence put into setting up different twists to be surprising while credible. On the different arcs I'll agree that Hock Seng's was underwhelming and didn't hold much interest by the end, but I found other sections engaging. In particular, the ability to make representatives from both corrupt multinationals and brutal isolationists human and sympathetic without downplaying the severely unethical sides of both. While Bacigalupi's priorities aren't in much doubt, he's able to frame his narrative with enough moral ambiguity to make it more than preachy, and above all he's able to show a grim but authentic world. I'd say the two elements go together--many things done by the characters and experienced in the setting are abhorrent, but they're also complex and believable enough that they can't be purely dismissed.

Best genre novel of 2009 that I've yet encountered, and not just because of weak competition. Hope it wins lots of awards.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Alexander:

I do agree that Bacigalupi does a good line in moral ambiguity, though again, in the Hock Seng and Lake plotlines I felt that he'd done better work in the short stories. What I should have mentioned in the review was how rounded and interesting Jaidee and Kanya are despite the horrible things they do or tolerate (and not to harp on a point, but I think it's significant that these two characters don't have antecedents in Bacigalupi's short stories).

I'm a Hugo nominator this year, and I'm already debating with myself whether I'm going to nominate The Windup Girl for best novel. I think I will - not only because, as you say, it hasn't been a very strong year (and anyway I haven't yet read many of the year's genre novels) but because despite being weaker than the short stories and despite my problems with its ending it is a worthwhile novel in its own right.

Anonymous said...

If worldbuilding is so important to this novel I am inclined to ask a couple of questions about it. For example, why is Environment trying to keep CO2 emissions down? They cannot plausibly expect that Thailands own emissions will have much effect on the global climate, and therefore on Thailands own climate problems.

And if the worst thing that the Evil Biotech Companies can do to someone is charge him a high price for his rice seeds, in what way is Environment benefitting people by banning them from buying said rice seeds from the Evil Biotech Companies?

Joel Bass said...

Thanks for this review - it's one of the few less-than-positive ones I could find of "The Windup Girl" (should've known I could count on you!). While I'm a Bacigalupi fan who loved Pump Six and look forward to reading whatever he writes, "The Windup Girl" really let me down. It was hard to figure out just why the book was so unsatisfying, but it felt like so many of the characters were just ruled by fear or greed, which, frankly, started to get a little dull. Greedy guy sees his plans fail. Scared girl gets even more scared. Bad guy wins. Good guy dies. I got the sense of an author who just wants to smash sand castles repeatedly, to teach us a lesson about how nasty people are... Not great fiction. I'm hoping he does a lot of reading and delivers something better next time.

Anonymous said...

Great review. I haven't read anything else by Bacigalupi, which is perhaps why I found the characters exciting and well fleshed-out.

I did not find the ending particularly grim or unsatisfactory. If anything, I felt a great sense of relief and hope when reading Kanya's final decisions and actions...

(I found the Jaidee/Kanya storyline most compelling.)

Sure the end was chaotic, but since most of the novel described a corrupt and stagnant world, a complete overhaul seemed both necessary and cathartic.

While far from perfect, and almost certainly headed towards future failure, the Thai Kingdom and their seedbank have a chance at rebirth, temporarily freed from the influence of Calorie companies / corrupt military leaders/ politicians.

(Does the Child Queen actually exist?)

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