The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi, Night Shade Books, 2010, 359 pp
So far, Paolo Bacigalupi has won the Nebula Award for 2010, the Locus Award (a readers poll) and has been nominated for the Hugo Award. So it is a big winning year for this author's first novel which most likely stands as a harbinger for what is to come in sci fi and speculative fiction. Bacigalupi has already been compared to Philip K Dick, William Gibson and Margaret Atwood for his sci fi and environmental chops. I would have to add Graham Greene for the colonial/political/third world savvy displayed. If The Windup Girl were not science fiction, which readers of a certain age often seem to fear with an almost racist mentality, it would be a competitor for the excitement accorded to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
In fact, Emiko, the "windup girl" heroine has some similarities to the tattoo girl. Emiko is genetically engineered and has been abandoned by her former master who once seemed to care for her. She is super human yet severely challenged when it comes to freewill, abused, depressed, yet determined to break free. Being the old feminist I am, I was routing for Emiko to overcome her preprogrammed compulsion to obey and serve.
The setting is Bangkok, 2300. Environmental disaster is fairly complete with all that we currently fear: no more oil, rampant plague, genetically modified food plants that succumb to "blister rust" and "genehack weevils," and a sort of futuristic steampunk hybrid of energy solutions. Global food corporations, whose origins lie in a defunct Empire of America, still operate by the same principles as Monsanto and the like. They are hot to get a foothold in Thailand, the one country who has managed to survive the rising ocean, the plagues and the crop killers by sealing itself off from the outside world, employing the feared whiteshirts of the Environmental Ministry to stamp out sources of disease while maintaining a top secret seedbank.
But there are always cracks in the armor, always greedy villains within and without and perhaps most dangerous, certain wildcard characters who inadvertently upset everything. Paolo Bacigalupi has brilliantly combined all the elements of story telling and produced a fascinating, high energy tale which kept me glued to the page in horror and suspense, unable to turn away.
One more thing: A couple months ago I turned down an assignment to review Dexter Palmer's debut novel, The Dream of Perpetual Motion. I read it and hated it for the writing style and the characters. I hereby eat crow. There is a new kind of writing rising up from a new generation, raised on TV shows I have never watched, music I don't listen to, and the undeniable influence of the Internet. It stands to reason that fiction of all genres is changing as it always does. It has taken me a while, but I think I am catching on. If you care to join me, read The Windup Girl.
(The Windup Girl is available in hardcover or paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)