My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
It’s been a while since I read something with so much worldbuilding, and initially I found the density of information unappealing. But Bacigalupi has a lot to cover: the whole story is set in Thailand, which is going to be an unfamiliar setting for most readers, and on top of this setting most of the characters are Asian (Japanese, Chinese, Thai) as well as Buddhist (Chinese, Thai), and on top of this we’re in a future that is a blend of pre-Industrial Revolution and the crazy futureness you expect from a good science fiction story.
While there are a lot of descriptors, the new vocabulary isn’t bad. His neologisms are easy to follow (generip, genehack—if you live in this century you will know what those words mean). There’s a decent bit of untranslated or infrequently translated Thai slang, too. Context is as effective as it is in books like A Clockwork Orange, although I have the slight advantage of a) having read a massive volume of Buddhist folklore and b) overlapping words between Thai and Hindi (mostly religion-related, and some of the names). But, really, the issue with these isn’t trying to decipher meanings, it’s the sense of alienation. I’m sure it’s deliberate, but it me took a little longer to get into the story, especially since has to surround the setting with description that would be mundane in an ordinary setting.
Also, it’s written in present tense. There is an excellent reason for doing this—lots of interspersed flashbacks—but it feels weird. Thank you, unusual English conventions.
Anyway, the story is intriguing because of the world (as with many great sci-fi works: the application of familiar tropes and themes to a setting that allows their exploration in ways currently impossible). As I said, Bacigalupi builds a lot, and once the pieces are in place it’s hard to tear away. Even before that, the premise is entrancing: this is a world where energy is the most valuable commodity of all (which accounts for the pre-Industrial Revolution aspects: there are almost no cars, being able to travel miles in a single day is a big deal) and which has also been ravaged by out of control genetic manipulation.
Genetically modified crops are a hot-button topic right now—and have been for several years—and Bacigalupi plays on people’s fear of the direction they might go. (We’re at a point where, without them, the world population can’t be fed. Take that as you will.) I’m not completely on board with that viewpoint for pragmatic reasons, but agribusiness…right there with the overwhelming distrust for agribusiness. It’s nice to see these topics make it into a genre that tends to use physics, rather than biology, as the primary driver of technological change. Okay, that’s my biology background slipping in 😛
What ties all this together is a narrative from multiple perspectives (third person, alternating characters) centered in the same city and overlapping every now and then. Weird things are happening in Thailand, and there’s this nice incorporation of the struggle between isolationism (ramped to a fever pitch) and interaction with the outside world, which has historically happened with multiple Asian countries. The push-pull between paranoia, exploitation, and a genuine interest in doing what’s best for the country works well in Bacigalupi’s dystopian paradise.
The one part of the story I take issue with is the arc involving the title character—the windup girl Emiko—herself. It’s not that her backstory and thematic significance aren’t interesting, but rather that her plot reads too conveniently at times. She drives key events in the plot, but when contrasted with the meticulous realism devoted to other characters (as with George R. R. Martin, you can’t assume everything works out perfectly even for the leads), that arc at times strikes a deus ex machina note. It’s not all fun and games for her (there are some brutal essentially-rape scenes; she’s a prostitute), but her plotline still comes off as contrived.
That said, I do like the ending, especially the part involving Emiko. This book started off slow but the overall direction and the world make it work. I think the Buddhist perspectives were well-conveyed: the attitudes towards progress (everything is cyclical, there’s really no such thing) and religion in general (hello reincarnation).
The style, while detailed, is unpretentious. It’s mentioned on the jacket that this book is based off two short stories, and I’ll have to go find them. There is a definite sense that Bacigalupi planned out the entire story of this world, although we’re only seeing one small moment in the timeline. The most outstanding aspect of this book is the worldbuilding.