I wear my nerd credentials proudly, but I’ve never been a science-fiction guy. I loved the original Star Wars trilogy as a kid, but name me a kid in the late 70s/early 80s who didn’t. And besides, what else was I going to watch – Ice Pirates? (Answer: actually, yes, I would). All the Star Wars action figures notwithstanding, it was actually Raiders of the Lost Ark that got me hooked on movies, and, if my nerdness was defined by anything, it was by comic books (and, much later, music and film). Science-fiction never really entered the picture in any serious way during my childhood, which is when, in my experience, those obsessions take root. I’ve never had much use for Star Trek in any of its iterations, and it’s taken the delightfully foul-mouthed Peter Capaldi to get me interested in Dr. Who. There’s no Serenity or Babylon 5 in my past, I still haven’t watched the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, and I’ve never gone through a Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov phase. And even though three of my favorite authors – Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Kurt Vonnegut – have all dabbled in science-fiction (or, as Ellison demands, speculative fiction), I find many of their space-set stories to be among their least interesting. And when I do like things that can probably be classified as science-fiction, it’s usually for non-sci-fi reasons. I adore the first two Alien movies (and have guarded affection for the second two), but mainly for the way they play out like balls-to-the-wall horror movies that just happen to be set in space. Lasers, space ships, voyages to distant planets, a shirtless William Shatner – all of it leaves me singularly unimpressed.
I don’t know why I have this particular … well, if not aversion, exactly, then ambivalence toward science-fiction. I mean, I get the appeal: the thrill of the unknown, the exploration of new technology, the implied boundary-busting of traveling across space and time. It’s fun, and I enjoy it in moderation. But I also find it frustratingly (but maybe appropriately) weightless. I can sit back in a movie theater seat and give myself over to two hours of big-screen razzle-dazzle, but when I’ve tried reading science-fiction I just can’t sink my teeth into it. As a reader I crave connection, and I’ve always found it difficult to relate to the characters in the science-fiction I’ve read. Similarly, intergalactic adventures just don’t have the same pull for me as struggles that take place in settings I can recognize. It’s not for lack of imagination – I actually enjoy fantasy quite a bit – but I read the story from a remove, watching it unspool like a TV show that plays as background noise. It just leaves me thoroughly unmoved.
All of this is why I picked up Book #2 in the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project – The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi – with some reluctance. Nebula and Hugo Awards be damned – those are just honors bestowed by a club I admire but in which I’ve never sought entrance. So why’d I pick it up in the first place? Blame it on Young Adult Lit (YAL). Bacigalupi has written two absolutely dynamite YAL texts, the loosely connected postapocalyptic novels Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities. The world-building in these two books – set in the ruins of New Orleans and Washington, D.C. – is impeccable, and the stories themselves represent the very best of what YAL can do. When I heard he’d written a book for adults, I knew I needed to give it a shot, regardless of genre.
It did not begin well. One or two chapters in, and I quickly found myself flailing around, looking for something to anchor my reading. Set in postapocalypse Bangkok, the book begins with Anderson Lake, an American factory foreman who we gather is actually undercover and on the lookout for new genetic strains of vegetation. The early chapters are tipping over with the kind of scientific gobbledygook that always turns me off:
The press slams down, clipping another kink-spring among the forty per hour that now, apparently, will have only a seventy-five percent chance of ending up in a supervised disposal fill at the Environment Ministry. They’re spending millions to produce trash that will cost millions more to destroy – a double-edged sword that just keeps cutting. Yates screwed something up, whether by accident or by spiteful sabotage, and it’s taken more than a year to realize the depths of the problem, to examine the algae baths that breed the kink-springs’ revolutionary coatings, to rework the corn resins that enclose the springs’ gear interfaces, to change the QA practices, to understand what a humidity level that hovers near 100% year-round does to a manufacturing process conceptualized in drier climes.
The detail is vivid and punctilious – certainly of a piece with what I’ve come to expect from Bacigalupi’s work – but the end product, at least at first, left me cold and not a little confused. Complicating matters is the fact that we’re quickly introduced to a panoply of characters: Lake, his assistant Hock Seng, a government solider named Jaidee, his partner Kanya, and their superior, General Pracha. We also meet the head of the trade association, Akkarat, and the protector of the child queen, Somdet Chaopraya, as well as Carlyle, another American in Bangkok. And then there’s Emiko, the titular android (here called New People) who is employed at the beginning as a sex slave. Programmed to obey and hobbled by a biology that causes her to frequently overheat, she’s the only sympathetic character for miles.
Most of these characters revolve around each other for the first half of the book, playing out conflicting motivations. Lake wants to strike a deal with Akkarat to use his seedbank to develop new crops; Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee, wants to escape the city by stealing Lake’s blueprints for super-sophisticated springs; Jaidee wants to keep order; and Emiko, tantalized by stories of a colony of New People in the hills outside Bangkok, wants to make enough money to buy her freedom. Lake plays a crucial role in this discovery, and it’s the relationship that develops between human and New Person that gives the book its emotional center. The heavy lifting through all of this is in keeping all these characters straight and negotiating the stew of technical jargon and Thai slang.
Halfway through, however, the story picks up. Jaidee’s wife goes missing, Lake strikes a crucial deal with Akkarat, Emiko reveals a particularly brutal talent, and Bangkok’s delicate peace begins to collapse under all the competing conflicts. It’s at this point that I became most interested in the story, but it might not be particularly surprising to learn that this is the point when The Windup Girl looks least like a science-fiction novel and most like a James Cameron movie.
I know this all sounds very lukewarm, which is misleading. Once I got my bearings I actually enjoyed Bacigalupi’s clever combination of the Thai vernacular with the invented futuristic lingo. There’s a little hint of Philip K. Dick in the the human/android relationship, as well as some James Ellroy in the way the characters navigate the city in a byzantine web of alliances and rivalries. And of course Bacigalupi’s frankly astounding gift for creating new societies out of the ashes of the old is the light that guides readers (or at least this particular reader) through the most complex passages.
It’s not enough to make me a convert, but The Windup Girl is certainly good enough to ensure that I’ll pick up something similar in the future if the pedigree is right.
On to Book #3 in the Project: Michael Chabon’s Werewolves in Their Youth.
Embrace – The Good Will Out (1998)