Monday, May 24, 2010

The Near Future Weighed Down by Today's Baggage

"The People of Sand and Slag" (2004) was my first exposure to Paolo Bacigalupi's work, and it blew me away. What sort of people would we be, what would we do to this planet, if we could engineer ourselves to live on bare rock? It was disturbing and depressing and it really stuck with me. The next year I read "The Calorie Man" (2005). Again, blown away. "Calorie Man" provided a different and illuminating take on what fundamentally powers economics. Since then I've kept up with his short fiction, most of which I've loved (with last year's "The Gambler" being another favorite). I looked forward to his first novel with keen interest. What I found in Windup Girl were many of Bacigalupi's strengths, but also a great big glaring weakness that really hindered my appreciation of the book.

Windup Girl takes place in Bangkok, Thailand. In this future, like today's Netherlands, Bangkok is holding back the rising waters that (literally) threaten to drown it. The world we're in is firmly the same universe as "The Calorie Man" and "The Yellow Card Man," (2006) both of which I recommend reading before embarking on the novel. I'm not entirely sure that the 'calorie man' concept came through clearly in the narrative if you read it without knowing the background. So, we have a post-oil near future. Global warming has hit in full with rising tides drowning many boats. In the absence of oil, everything from transportation to city power has become more complicated. Interestingly, this book does not detail the actual nigh-apocalypse caused by the oil running out. The characters refer to the 'Expansion' (the time we're living in now), and then the 'Contraction,' a time of chaos and mass die-offs.

In this time of relative calm, we follow four characters in Bangkok. Anderson Lake is a westerner out to profit from Thailand's relative prosperity and farsightedness. Officially he is overseeing a factory that is developing kink-spring drives that can store energy more efficiently than current models. Unofficially he is looking for access to Thailand's enormous library of genetic material, a seed bank that stores its true natural resource. The motivation for all this is a little muddy if you read this as a stand-alone; "The Calorie Man" lays out the case for genetic diversity and its importance more clearly. Hock Seng is a 'yellow card,' a barely tolerated Chinese refugee from Malaysia. There the Islamic community rose up and slaughtered most of the Chinese community, even families who had lived there for generations. Hock Seng had been a very prosperous businessman, but was left with little more than his skin and a mass of psychic scars. He works for Lake but has only one focus: doing whatever he must to make sure that he never, ever gets trapped or taken by surprise that way again. He has plans upon plans, but what he lacks are the plans for Lake's manufacturing line, which he hopes to sell for protection and resources.

On the other side Jaidee Rojjanasukchai and Kanya Chirathivat work with the Thai customs agency. They protect Thailand from all enemies, especially foreign (and potentially plague-bearing) genetic material. Most customs officials are easily bribed, but Jaidee is the 'Tiger of Bangkok,' who actually cares about protecting his homeland. Off to the side a bit is Emiko, the eponymous 'Windup Girl.' She is genetically engineered to be a 'companion' to a Japanese businessman: a lover, but also a secretary and translator. Unfortunately, she was sold off by her former owner and wound up in a whore house, where every night she is graphically sexually humiliated in front of crowds of men. From Lake she learns of a colony of runaway windup people up north somewhere, but almost every motion marks her out as a created creature. Windups are popularly believed to be soulless, are illegal in Thailand, and are considered abominations by the new fundamentalist Christian sect, the Grahamites. (It seems that no post-apolcalyptic near-future is complete these days without some fundie Christians running around).

All of the characters proceed to navigate an *ahem* dynamically challenging environment. Thailand's government is not stable; one strong king led them through the Contraction successfully, but in the time of the book there is a child princess and a regent. The regent has one faction, and the army (including the customs agency) has another. A string of more-or-less random events brings all the pent-up conflict to a head, and everyone must survive as best they can. In fact, some of them don't survive. At the end, huge changes have been wrought in Thailand.

I definitely liked the range of characters that Bacigalupi picked for his points of view; they encompass the scene usefully from several different perspectives. Each of them is well-drawn, with clear motivations (although sometimes they fail to be much more than the collection of their motivations; I think Hock Seng and Kanya best rise above these limitations). I appreciate his vision of a post-oil future and what that might mean, how other tech could fill the gaps and what gaps might be left. I found the depiction of a political climate so volatile that any random spark sets off an explosion of pent-up conflict to be excellent.

Here's my biggest reservation about the novel, the bit that I may not be able to overcome. When you choose an exotic third world country as your setting, you have to deal with the modern-day baggage that it brings along with it in the mind of many (ignorant) Westerners--like me. The Western stereotype of places like Thailand is that they are already cesspools of political and economic chaos. (Consider Thailand's most recent flare-up of protests, violent repressions, and borderline civil war.) Basically, I feel like the future depicted here doesn't seem that much worse than the present that I imagine in Thailand and other countries in similar situations.

Likewise, Emiko is burdened by her real-world counterparts. Emiko is an enslaved whore, but lucky for her she is not only a genetically engineered geisha, she is also a genetically engineered super-ninja assassin who gets to kill the men who abuse her most horrifically and then survive the political crisis, violence and eventual flooding sparked by her revenge rampage. In fact, because of her super-abilities and the intervention of a random genetic engineer in the epilogue (a gun that was only barely and somewhat conveniently laid on the mantlepiece in the main narrative), she may be the future of humanity. (Although that future may ultimately lead us to "The People of Sand and Slag," still not a happy place.)

Now, I imagine (and Western anti-slavery activists tell us) that there are many, many women in sexual slavery in parts of the world right now who have no hope or ability to better their lot. They are not super-ninjas just waiting for the right trigger to wreck their just revenge. They live lives of torture and abuse and they often die young. Likewise, there are good government officials now standing up to corrupt ones, and there are political factions out there who don't care who they have to kill to get power, and there are Westerners seeking to take advantage of third world resources--sometimes they succeed and sometimes they get chewed up and spit out by cultures and forces they don't understand. There are barely tolerated refugees out there right now, and some of them make it and a lot of them don't. So I just keep thinking about the real enslaved prostitutes, and the real customs officials, and the real barely legal refugees out there in the world, and I wonder why, in Windup Girl's resource-depleted future, these characters seem to have more resources and more agency than their real world counterparts.

(I must note that this is a systematic bias of almost all fiction: we prefer to read about people who succeed--Heroes--or at least have the power to possibly succeed, rather than people who cannot change their own lot. But you would think that of any writer, Bacigalupi would be among the least likely to hew to this convention.)

How does this post-apocalyptic Thailand illuminate Bacigalupi's message? If we are meant to be shocked and dismayed at the sheer quantity of abuses, on levels of sex, gender, power, class, race, ethnicity and any other form you can think of, why not write a book about people living in these conditions today? Why not write non-fiction, or make a documentary? If, on the other hand, we are meant to be shocked by the horrors of this energy-scarce post-apocalyptic world, why not show the Contraction, when so much of the Earth's population died? Why depict the time when things have regained enough stability to duplicate the abuses of today? I hate to accuse the infamously depressing and dystopian Bacigalupi of having a too-optimistic ending, but too much of this book seemed like revenge fantasy: more bad guys die than good guys, the 'right' faction wins the day even though it causes huge disruptions to the nation, and the abused sex slave gets to kill those who enslaved her and in fact becomes the future hope of humanity.

Maybe this book would have worked better if I were more familiar with Thailand today; then I would clearly see the differences and be shocked by them. But it isn't so different from the images I have in my head of modern-day failed states--whether they be in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, or Africa--to shock me with how much worse things would be after the energy runs out. I still appreciate Bacigalupi's detailed vision of a post-oil future, but for me this milieu wasn't the best background against which to showcase that future.

I must also mention that I was almost certainly put off the whole enterprise by the extraordinarily graphic and unpleasant descriptions of Emiko's sexual torture at the hands of her oppressors. I assume that Bacigalupi chose to show those scenes in such detail in order to make her ultimate revenge both justified and a cause of celebration. But I've never really been good at stomaching scenes like that; reading them hurt in a much more visceral way for me than most other depictions of random violence.


Anonymous said...

Hmmm... so would the book have achieved its objective better if the character in sexual slavery had had no agency at all and just been struggled over by the other, male protagonists? Difficult...

John Ottinger III (Grasping for the Wind) said...

Karen - thanks for such insight, I too struggled with this book, but did not but in such clear terms as you. I knew it was going to win awards as soon as I read it - as it hit certian political checkmarks, was sexually graphic, and took place in a little used setting - but didn't feel it lived up to the hype it would get for the very reasons you name.

Karen Burnham said...

Well, perhaps she could have a slightly more realistic way of freeing herself than to imagine that the Japanese will make all their genetically engineered geisha also super-ninja assassins?

Karen Burnham said...

Cross post! Thanks for your comment, John, I really appreciate it. It took me a long time to fully articulate what bothered me about this book after I'd finished it.

However, I won't deny that it's one of the most important and one of the most future-oriented books published last year. I wouldn't be too put out if it wins the Hugo along with the Nebula.