A while back I put up an episode called “Something New to be Afraid Of“, in which I wondered out loud about the power that agribusiness is gaining through genetically modified foods. I didn’t realize at the time that Paolo Bacigalupi was way ahead of me, not just in time but also in fear level.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacagalupi takes place in the future, after fossil fuels have been nearly exhausted. Agriculture is now one of humanity’s main sources of energy as well as how we feed ourselves. The crash from the energy-intensive civilization we enjoy today was swift and brutal. Once-great nations have been nearly depopulated, and hunger is everywhere. Genetic modification is one of the primary tools mankind is using to survive. For instance, we have genetically modified animals that are very efficient at converting vegetable calories into useful work. Many humans are used this way as well, and would not eat otherwise.
Genetic modification is also making things much worse. Where I worried about companies manipulating markets, forcing farmers to buy their seed stock year after year, in The Windup Girl agribusiness has gone the next logical step: unleashing plagues on countries that refuse to do business with them, plagues that only their products are immune to. Whole families of plants are now extinct (there are no peppers, no tomatoes anywhere in the world). Seed banks have been destroyed in the social upheaval and many plants are irrevocably lost. In the words of one “calorie man” in a moment of hubris, “I’ve been inoculated for diseases that haven’t been released yet.”
Man’s tinkering is not limited to plants; there now exists a breed of supercat than can change color and become almost invisible. House cats are now extinct and there are few birds left. Perhaps the lesson of the cats is why modified humans are sterile.
Tucked away in a far corner of the globe, one tiny nation has managed to resist the agricultural conglomerates. Thailand’s independence was hard-won; the people of the country must be prepared to raze villages and quarantine thousands, burn entire crops and even forests, to keep the plagues at bay. Now times are changing. International trade is picking up, and internally the ministry charged with protecting Thailand is suffering for its own success, becoming marginalized.
In Thai street markets, plants long thought lost are starting to reappear. The only possible conclusion: Somewhere they have a seed bank, a treasure of incalculable value (especially to agribusiness).
This story contains a whole bunch of conflicts, between old and new, survival and altruism, pride and duty. The characters are complex and interesting, from the Calorie Man sent from one of the big agricultural companies, to the wily Chinese man just scraping by but always hoping to get back on top, to the cast-aside New Person, a genetically modified woman whose life, well, sucks. Then there’s Kanya with her divided loyalties, who must make a decision that will echo for eternity. Add corrupt politicians, a powerful slum lord, mutating plagues, and a rogue genetic engineer, and you’ve got yourself a fine stew.
Everyone in this story has tragedy in their pasts. Entire families massacred or lost to disease. They are not exceptional; to live in this world is to live with tragedy. Thailand’s past, its history and legends, remain current and meaningful, and inform the actions of the principals in really interesting ways, becoming a template for how once more the Thai must stand against a much more powerful foe.
These are not gentle times, and not gentle people. When things get ugly the author does not pull his punches, including graphic (but heartbreaking) depictions of sexual humiliation visited upon Emiko, the windup girl. The writing is powerful at times, always clear, and the characters change organically, adjusting to circumstances and learning, without needing any sort of epiphany or magic wand to propel them.
I did have a couple of quibbles, in particular: Where are the windmills? It seems like every derelict tower in Bangkok would have a big ‘ol windmill on the top, and the dike keeping the much-higher ocean at bay would be lined with them. Solar panels would be everywhere as well.
In the big picture those things didn’t matter that much; this was a fine read, a real page-turner with language that wasn’t afraid to get down into the gutter with its characters. I really enjoyed it.
Wow – did I just write an entire book episode and talk only about the book? Can this be? Of course not. Let’s talk about sequels.
While I look forward to the next novel Mr. Bacigalupi writes, I hope it’s not a sequel to this one. Well, let me rephrase that. I find the world he’s created to be fascinating and I’d love to visit it again, but a sequel to this story would face problems similar to sequels for The Matrix (should anyone be so foolish as to attempt one). IF there was a sequel to The Matrix (or, God forbid, two of them), the first thing the writer would have to do would be to limit the power Neo had at the end of the first movie. Essentially they would have to rewind the story a little, revoke the payoff of the first movie, and pretend his dramatic little speech never happened. Otherwise the fight between Neo and the Agents would not be compelling – and, let’s face it, Agent Smith makes that movie. Overwriting the end of the first film would be a cheap-ass thing to pull off, so I’m glad no one has tried.
While such a gimmick would not be so immediate in The Windup Girl Goes goes to Omaha, a genie or two have been let out of their bottles, and it would be lame to try to stuff them back in. So, “sequel” as a continuation of this story – I hope not. “Sequel” as an exploration of the changing world set in motion by the events in this book, I wholeheartedly look forward to.
Larger-than-usual disclaimer: I have met the author of this book, and he seemed like a good guy, so I might be a little biased. My bias is expressed in that had I not liked the book, I might not have reviewed it. No worries in this case.
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