Monday, December 17, 2012

The Thrill of Discovery

By Lisabet Sarai

For the next two weeks here at Oh Get a Grip, we're going to be talking about what we've been reading lately. The timing is fortuitous, since only a few days ago I finished one of the best books I've read in very long time, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.

My husband picked up this fat science fiction opus at a used bookstore. Although we often confer about our finds before purchasing them (conserving funds – and space – means buying books we both would consider reading), I didn't really look at this one. I think we might have been in a rush. Anyway, he began perusing the book before I did. We'd sit in bed together reading, and I'd hear “Wow!” or “This is really dark!” or “I can't believe this guy isn't Thai” coming regularly from his side. He kept this up through the entire five hundred odd pages. I knew I had to read it.

The Windup Girl takes place in a dystopic world perhaps a hundred years in the future, during “the Contraction”. Humanity has used up all the petroleum on the planet, leaving biomethane, coal and animal (or human) power as the main sources of energy. Much of humanity hovers on the edge of famine as a few Monsanto-like corporations (the “calorie companies”) control most of the world's genetic material, producing sterile (and of course patented) U-Tex Rice, TotalNutrient Wheat, HiGro Corn and SoyPRO. Genetic modification (“genehacking”) has also produced new plagues and pests that have devastated the ecosystem, making the world even more dependent on the calorie companies. The book implies though never states that at least some of these blights were deliberately engineered to decimate natural genetic diversity and increase dependence on AgriGen, PureCal and their ilk.

Thailand, however, has been spared from the worst of this ecological disaster, largely due to the vigilance of the powerful Environment Ministry, which works to keep unauthorized GM products and raw materials for generipping out of the kingdom. Anderson Lake, an AgriGen employee, visits Bangkok under false pretenses, trying to locate the source of the old-fashioned, natural fruits and vegetables (tomatoes, eggplants and other items unseen for generations) that regularly appear in Bangkok's markets. Lake plots with the Ministry of Trade, Environment's traditional enemy, to undermine the Environment Ministry and uncover its hidden seed bank.

The “calorie man” Lake is only one of many vivid characters in this drama, however. There's Captain Jaidee, known as the Tiger, a former Thai boxer who now leads Environment's enforcement – a man who earns both his real name (which means “good heart”), for his generosity and sense of humor, and his sobriquet, due to his ferocity. His somber, dutiful lieutenant Kanya is his polar opposite, grimly pursuing her own understanding of justice. Hock Seng is Lake's lackey at the factory that serves as cover for his genetic researchers. A former wealthy merchant, Hock Seng is now a stateless refugee after horrific massacres of the Malaysian Chinese by Muslim Malays. And at the center of the story is Emiko, the “windup girl” of the title, engineered in Japan as a secretary and companion but then abandoned by her owner in Bangkok. Emiko is in some sense the ultimate fruit of the genetic manipulation that has crippled the earth, but she may also be the planet's future.

The last scifi book I read before The Windup Girl was China Mieville's The Scar. When I reviewed that book, I commented that it included some brilliant ideas – possibly too many of them. Paolo Bacigalupi strikes just the right balance, throwing out fascinating notions about possible futures but never straying too far from his central themes. The book is very tightly written (if you can say that about a 500 page novel!). It kept me on edge to the very last page; I really couldn't predict the (surprisingly positive) ending.

All of the above would be enough to make me recommend The Windup Girl. However, on top of intriguing characters, a shocking yet plausible premise, and plenty of action and intrigue, this book demonstrates an incredible understanding of Thailand – environment, culture, politics and psyche. I know Thailand well. I lived there for several years in the eighties and now I visit it often. I can scarcely believe how perfectly Mr. Bacigalupi has captured the realities and the contradictions of the Thais. They embrace technology and yet they continue to guard their economy from outsiders. They're peaceful Buddhists and violent thugs. The competition between Trade and Environment, the double-dealing and corruption, could have been taken from today's headlines in the Bangkok Post.

Bacigalupi is spot on in his description of the environment, too – the heat and humidity, the vibrant street markets, the noise and the strange oases of quiet. His depiction of Bangkok holding the sea at bay with massive flood walls and coal-powered pumps may be only a decade or two away. Certainly, I could imagine it perfectly, having walked along the banks of the Chao Phaya River and seen the City of Angels meters deep in water.

This amazing verisimilitude made reading The Windup Girl almost a peak experience for me. I do wonder whether readers without my familiarity with Thailand will have the same reaction. On the other hand, the book won both the Nebula and the Hugo awards in 2010, the year it was published (a fact neither my husband nor I knew when we bought it), so I guess a good deal of the brilliance was obvious even to the uninitiated.

When my husband and I have both finished one of our used-book-store finds, we normally donate it to a charity for resale. The Windup Girl, though, has earned a place on our “keeper” bookshelves, along with Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, Gilbert and Sullivan, D.M. Thomas, Haruki Murakami, and Shakespeare. We've already sent one copy (new, of course) to a friend as a gift. I expect that will happen again.

If you enjoy intelligent science fiction – if you're concerned about environmental issues – if you have any interest in, or experience with, Thailand – read this book.


  1. Oooh! Buying it!
    This sounds like my kind of book.

  2. I think you'll like it. Best sci fi I've read in years!

  3. Hi Lisabet!

    I feel a bit daunted by the length of it but the premise of it rings true to me. I think I'll take a look at this if i come across it. The idea of corporations holding mankind hostage for profit in genetics I find very easy to believe. I know that here in the states I see so many peole drinking bottled water they've had to pay money for. Who would have believed a few years ago we would pay money to drink water? How did they train us to do this? what does it mean?

    As drinkable water resources in the future becomer scarcer, corporations are positioning themselves I believe to control those water sources and exploit them for profit. We're learning to accept the idea of paying money to drink water. what comes next - air?


  4. Hello, Garce,

    I think you have the germ of a story there.

    Don't be put off by the length of this book. It doesn't feel long at all. And like most of the books I truly enjoy, I was sorry to see it end.


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