Sunday, 4 November 2012

Paolo Bacigalupi: The Windup Girl

I imagine that somewhere in Monsanto's corporate HQ, there's a guy still thanking God that this book is SF. Not because he's grateful that the things in it haven't happened yet, but because no-one of any importance reads SF. If The Windup Girl had been brought out as a literary novel, decision makers might have started wondering about GMOs. But since it came out as an SF book with elephants and skyscrapers on the cover….

I've written before about Bacigalupi. The Windup Girl is his first published novel, and it just happens that I've come to it last. It establishes the world he uses for the later two novels, Shipbreaker and The Drowned Cities, a world which I think he's going to go on digging through. Although the characters in The Windup Girl are strong and memorable, the world is really the star of the show. The other two books are set in a collapsed US long after the end of peak oil and all the easy living that came with it. It's clear in the books that there's been conflict and upheaval as well global warming; he's not writing about a world in which challenges inspired us all to work together, but about a world where people tore each other apart when the going got tough. The Windup Girl is set in Bangkok, as the government struggles to keep the rising flood waters from swamping the city, an almost too-obvious parallel with their efforts to save all of Thailand from being overwhelmed by waves of plant and animal diseases from outside their tightly regulated pocket of just-getting-by.

It's often difficult for me to think of something intelligent and funny to say about a good book. The Windup Girl is that especially difficult thing, a good book which I think is also an important one. It's probably the best written SF book to date on the topic of genetic manipulation of commonplace organisms. His other work has had genetically manipulated near-humans, but in The Windup Girl, he's teasing out what might happen if we go on manipulating the genetics of other things, particularly crops. We've always manipulated crops and food animals; that's what breeding programmes are all about. What's changed is the degree of control. We used to hold back some of the crop to plant next year as seeds; but there's no money for breeders in that kind of thing. We used to use chemicals to control pests; increasingly we're trying to use different pests to prey on the pests that we're more worried about. Bacigalupi shows us a world where these trends have continued, and gone badly wrong.

The world has been devastated by global warming; climate change has swept away coastlines and farm belts and fatally undercut the world's ability to feed itself. And states and companies have fought each other for control of how food is grown; plagues have swept through crops, triggering an escalating arms race between the plagues and the crop designers struggling to create varieties which will resist the plagues. It's never spelled out, but running under the narrative is the hint that the plagues were engineered, released to wipe out competing companies' products. 

The world of The Windup Girl is a world short of energy; oil is gone, and with it the cheap energy we take for granted now. Food is in short supply, and with it, the energy which humans and animals need to do the physical work which has had to take place of fossil-fuelled electricity. Bacigalupi inks in a detailed and persuasive world where even subsistence is a victory.

The book has a plot, which is mostly about the way in which individual ambition and desperation bring the Thai government crashing chaotically down, but the real power in the work is not the plot of this one disaster, but the brilliantly sketched in sense of a world in which such disasters have become almost inevitable. 

This is the first time that I've linked from a blog entry to someplace where you could actually buy the book. You shouldn't be reading this blog entry. You should be reading the book.

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