Jun 7, 2011

[Books] The Windup Girl

The Windup GirlIt's funny how steampunk has started to evolve from being just another aesthetic style within the works of science fiction and fantasy (and Squaresoft games) to starting to break free as an independent fiction genre. Sure, you can always argue that this should merely remain as an aspect of speculative fiction in general but its rising popularity, at least in literary circles, presents a significant argument for its recognition.

Plus let's face it, steampunk stories tend to involve a lot more creative thought and use of one's imagination compared to the recent wave of zombie books that have been making the rounds as well. And thus they get my vote of support for full independence - just let me know where to vote for the referendum or whatever. Ha.

Pardon my horrible sense of humor.

This book certainly made waves when it came out given how well-received it was in science fiction circles. The book went on to win several awards and thus I eagerly looked forward to its arrival in the country. Fast forward to 2011 and I still haven't seen a copy on local bookstore shelves - I blame the lack of sufficient support for new science fiction authors / titles with local distributors. Thus this book also holds the personal distinction of being my first Kindle ebook purchase. And it was definitely worth the purchase (and that of my Kindle 3).

The Windup Girl is a 2009 science fiction / steampunk novel written by Paolo Bacigalupi. It was TIME Magazine's ninth best fiction book of 2009, best science fiction book in the 2010 Reference and User Services Association Reading list and it also won both the Nebula (2009) and the Hugo (2010) awards along with several others.

In a post fossil fuels future, the world is run on springs. In this case, highly advanced devices such as kink-springs that store kinetic energy once fully would in complex factories. The world's food supplies are mainly controlled by overpowering agricultural companies who have genetically modified their products to provide all needed nutritional requirements with the plants themselves remaining sterile, thus fully under their control. Genetic plagues are common issues that the people in this future face because of their dependence on GM food but the mega corporations continue to push hard to get their products into all markets.

One part of the machine is one Anderson Lake, the representative for AgriGen now based in their Thailand kink-spring factory. While on the surface he runs the factory, his true mission is to sniff out the location of the rumored seedbank that the Thai government has been hiding. Assisting him in the day-to-day operations is Hock Seng, once a successful businessman but now just another Chinese refugee trying to make a living after escaping the Malaysia purge.

The story revolves around Anderson's continued search for the seedbank, Hock Seng trying to juggle his personal ambitions against the demands of his foreign overlord and eventually a "New Person", this being the titular Windup girl. She too is the product of genetic engineering as created by the Japanese to be the perfect servant. But there's more to her than meets the eye and Anderson will soon discover how she may hold the key to many of his desires.

The book does a stellar job of creating this new world in the realms of the mind of the reader without holding your hand in the process. From the very beginning we are faced with a variety of unfamiliar terms like the massive megadonts that help run the kink-spring factory or the genehacked creations of the calorie companies. But at the same time, the book slowly reveals what these unfamiliar concepts are while keeping you advancing through the story at a steady yet well thought out pace.

Paolo Bacigalupi in an armchair in the Delta C...Image via WikipediaThe book can be a bit of a challenging read. Beyond the neologisms that litter the book, the story also features a very large cast of characters (with unfamiliar names) that are all important in their own way to the final resolution of the book. Beyond the characters I've already mentioned, we still have to factor in the members of the Thai Environment and Trade Ministries, that each have their own agendas to pursue in his story. But once you get past the initial confusion, the book really flows all on its own and as a reader you can't help but get drawn along into the flow of the narrative.

Admittedly, it's hard to capture the story in a very quick summary. Is the focus Anderson's search for the seedbanks alone? Should it be the trials of Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, the so-called Tiger of the White Shirts of the Environment Ministry? Perhaps it's Hock Seng and his continued determination to gain back his former status while keeping himself out of trouble? Is it Emiko the windup girl's struggle for freedom from oppression and her hopes of finding a sanctuary for her kind? There are so many angles to pursue in this book and all of them are quite rewarding.

I love how the book tied everything together in the end without needing to arrange some sort of Hollywood-style climax where all characters are in on location. Instead we have this complex juggling of stories where each thread runs the risk of intersecting with all the others in a complex chain of events that I can't even begin to imagine how the author managed to conceptualize all by himself. Thus hats off to him and all that.

The Windup Girl is most importantly one of the freshest, most refreshing stories to grace the science fiction genre in ages. After years of tropes, cliches and reimaginations, finally we get a truly original story, and a darned good one at that. It gets 5 instances of Anderson obsessing over Ngaws out of a possible 5.

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