Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The Windup Girl

The future's grim, if Paolo Bacigalupi is to be believed. Sea levels will rise. Cities will be razed by floods. Plagues - both natural and man-made - will rid the once-green land of a great proportion of the human population. Nature's diversity will be greatly curtailed, with both animals and plants becoming extinct in the cleansing of the planet.

It's for these reasons that I'm please to live in 21st century Yorkshire rather than 23rd century Thailand. It's a grim place. The world is recovering from the effects of global warming. Carbon-based fuels are gone, replaced by manual wind-up springs which contain energy. Food production is no longer a natural process; such has been the extent of the dying-back of nature that fruits and other forms of sustenance have to be artificially produced. These so-called 'calorie companies' are regarded as an evil - albeit a necessary one.

This is the world of The Windup Girl, a richly-textured, brilliantly realised place, chock full of scams and schemes and intrigues. Corruption and coercion go hand in hand. Very few men have honour. It's in this world that the titular windup girl lives. She's one of the New People, a Japanese invention with enhanced genes making her immune to illnesses and enhancing her abilities. She's also been bred to serve, initially a Japanese master, but then, after he discarded her, a second, less honourable man in a land where she's a million miles from welcome.

When she meets Anderson Lake - a calorie man working for one of the calorie companies - her influence on the turbulent Thailand of the 23rd century could hardly be predicted.

Much as I'm loath to bring something so unrelated as Shrek to the fore in a review of such a fantastic novel as The Windup Girl, I'm afraid I have to. Remember the part about ogres having layers, like onions? The Windup Girl reminds me of that, but for different reasons. There's the careful, subtle layering of a dangerous world and also the intrigues, the plots within plots. It's all intricate and beautifully done.

And it's not just the world and the intrigues that have multiple layers. The characters carry the story superbly. It's rare to see a world so brilliantly realised with equally brilliant characters populating that same environment, but it happens here. Emiko - the windup girl - in particular makes an interesting character. Doomed to subservience by her genes, her battle with herself and her innate submissiveness is fascinating, even if some of the scenes involving her are disturbing.

It's perhaps a mark of The Windup Girl's quality when I'm not finding fault with the writing or the plot or the characters, but that instead my biggest complaint is the disturbing scenes of sexual abuse. It always makes for uncomfortable reading, no matter the context and the surrounding quality. In this case, its inclusion was justified, but with one scene in particular near the end it felt unnerving.

Overall, however, I enjoyed The Windup Girl like I've enjoyed only a handful of other novels over the past year or so. Not since Hyperion have I dished out lavish praise, but in this case I feel justified in doing so. Read this book. It really is contemporary SF at its very finest. And I can't say more than that.

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