Friday, March 16, 2012

Review: The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While the second half of this book is a vast improvement over the first half, I'm not sure it was worth my patience to make it to the exciting part. This is a dark book about a dark future, and, while it's quite well-written, I never felt engaged as a reader.

Paolo Bacigalupi creates a future dystopia ravaged by cultivated diseases, famine, and invasive species created by playing with genes. There isn't enough food to go around, oil is no more, and the space and atomic races are things of the past, the big question being who can get the most calories out of the least effort. Into this world, we have a "calorie man," who works for one of the big corporations who helped make this world the terrible place it is, a "yellow-card" elderly Chinese man who used to own his own company before China and Malaysia became relics, a "white shirt" who's famous for refusing bribes and who used to fight in the Muay Thai ring, and the title character, who gets her name from the stutter-stop motions coded into her genes to give her origins away, lest someone mistake her for a real person. Emiko, the wind-up girl, was left by a Japanese businessman because he couldn't afford her passage back, and now she works in a brothel as the object of ridicule and derision. She's prostituted out on the virtue of her exoticism and abused daily onstage.

Sadly, Emiko is the only character with which I was able to sympathize. Everyone else in this world is corrupt to the core, and justifies selfishness and screwing people over with all kinds of mental gymnastics. An awful lot of the book is told through perspectives other than Emiko's, though, and the most exciting thing Emiko does happens off-screen, so to speak. Instead, we get a lot of philosophy and corrupt politics and background on a world we're tossed into with little preparation.

I'll give the author this: he knows how to world-build. After my daily dose of audio book, I felt like I needed to scrub the slime of the book's world off my skin. I felt filthy by proximity to such pollution. The book may toss the reader in without introduction (and without buying you dinner first), but it's clear that this is a fully-developed world, of which we aren't getting the entire story. There are hints of other goings-on, events which we can only infer.

Unfortunately, the book's greatest strength, that of its themes, has been handled before, and handled better. Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake presents a world similarly corrupted by an uneven power structure, too much control in the hands of corporations, and people screwed over by a system that doesn't care if they live or die. And The Year of the Flood has a much more sympathetic prostitute character who's a lot stronger than Emiko. I kept waiting for Emiko to get some semblance of agency, but instead, she acts only to react to terrible things happening to her, and to wait for a man to save her. It was disappointing.

But then, after the droning start and corrupt-as-hell cast of characters, my expectations weren't terribly high to begin with.

I can see why this might have won the Hugo, because it has all the highbrow literary stuff I dislike. It is well-written, it's just not what I like to read in my science fiction and fantasy.

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