September 1, 2010

Counting Calories

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

For the next installment in my summer reading series, I opted for a rad new science fiction piece. Bacigalupi has been nominated for and won various awards for his short and long fiction, and as soon as I saw this book I knew I wanted to read it. The cover is great, and I will definitely admit to judging books by their covers -- especially when they are this good.

The novel itself takes place in a distant dystopic -- or perhaps just realistic -- future, after the global oil culture has completely collapsed. The major commodity is now the calorie, as man and beast power is the primary form of energy. Genetic manipulators have created new food forms -- many of which are sterile after one harvest and enormously susceptible to terrible plagues -- as well as new critters and even new people. I found something of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake in his biopunk future, though he cannot yet keep up with her literary prowess at the level of the individual word. Her work is polished to the utmost, while Bacigalupi's is at points clearly a debut novel. That said, if this is his debut work, I can't wait to see his more practiced novels*.

Bacigalupi shifts his narrative's perspective from various characters occupying various roles in this new world in the Thai Kingdom. A calorie man: an agent of one of the biopower companies holding patents on seed variations and disease strains alike. Various locals throughout the bureaucracy each vying for a place in the precariously balanced hierarchy running the kingdom. And a windup girl, a new person genetically enhanced in almost every way, but handicapped by a twitching, clockwork-like motion that distinguishes her and her kind from true humans.

The novel is disturbing in the its level of potential truth. It is not so hard to imagine his biopunk society as one that could arise after our current petroleum bubble bursts. And his characters, perhaps especially the windup girl, are relatable in their hopes and fears, their flaws and strengths. He explores basic philosophical truths, such as what is means to be human, to be decent, to survive. He critiques and mocks our own society -- at times wistfully or gently, at times with the sharpest satire. The scifi world of his novel allows him to explore these truths in a way that lets them sneak into your own mind, settle in, and then smack you upside the head. Bacigalupi's social commentary is practiced and subtle, even when the novel itself bogs down.

I have also read some of his shorter fiction, which displays his skills in crafting new settings and characters that are immediately understandable. I look forward to his future novels displaying even more of that skill, as I did find The Windup Girl occasionally awkward or aimless. The narrative always found its way again, though, and while the ending can't rightfully be deemed satisfying, it was appropriate.

On the whole, Bacigalupi is now firmly installed on my author list and I certainly recommend delving into the novel. Give yourself a few weeks -- as it can be a bit too much to swallow in long sittings -- but I think you'll enjoy the ride.

*His latest, Ship Breaker, was released in May, but I haven't read yet. Have you? Thoughts?

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