Monday, November 7, 2011

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Imagine a future - it isn't hard to do - in which the oceans are rising, there's no oil, and biotechnology has mutated out of control. Genetically modified diseases and pests have swept the globe, and the world is transformed by famine and violence.

Calories are the basis for the new economy. Machines are designed to be powered by springs, and it takes calories to wind those springs. Since food is just as precarious a resource as oil ever was, agricultural companies, with patents on the genetic codes of crops, enforce their calorie monopolies with armies.

Anderson Lake is a covert agent for one such company. He is embedded in the Kingdom of Thailand, which is surrounded by walls: sea walls to keep out the rising tides, and trade barriers to keep out foreign products that might be tainted. A military force called the white shirts brutally suppresses any sign of disease or infestation. But some Thais are interested in foreign trade, and some white shirts take bribes. Thailand is on the brink of change, and Anderson is on hand to take advantage.

The Windup Girl grapples with big ideas, but one character succeeds in bringing it down to earth with her very human plight - and ironically, she is not human. She is Emiko, a Windup, genetically manufactured to be the beautiful companion to a wealthy Japanese businessman. But she has been abandoned in Thailand, where alien genehacked beings are not only illegal but regarded with revulsion. She survives nightly humiliation and abuse in a Thai brothel, dreaming of freedom.

The Windup Girl swept the 2009 Hugo, Nebula, and John W. Campbell Memorial awards for best science fiction novel. It won the Locus Award for best first novel. Time Magazine called it one of the 10 best books of 2009.

I struggled with it at first – it’s not an easy book to get into – but soon found that I was hooked. The Windup Girl full of ideas about the future of genetic engineering, and peopled with flawed, interesting characters. It is a grim book, fierce, complicated, and worth the effort.

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