By Michael Dirda
Thursday, July 8, 2010; C03
THE WINDUP GIRL
By Paolo Bacigalupi
Night Shade. 300 pp. Paperback, $14.95
Not since William Gibson's pioneering cyberpunk classic, "Neuromancer" (1984), has a first novel excited science fiction readers as much as Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Windup Girl." I missed it last year when the book first appeared, but three recent events have made it a timely addition to the summer reading list.
First, just two weeks ago "The Windup Girl" was awarded the Locus Magazine Award for best first novel. Second, in May Bacigalupi received the even more prestigious Nebula Award -- given by the Science Fiction Writers of America -- for best novel of the year. Those are convincing literary endorsements. But the third reason to pick up "The Windup Girl" is for its harrowing, on-the-ground portrait of power plays, destruction and civil insurrection in Bangkok.
Even though the book is set in an imagined future, its depiction of the city during violent unrest feels astonishingly true-to-life. Inadvertently, Bacigalupi offers a window on what it must have been like in Thailand's capital during this spring's strife and bloodshed. Though he stresses in his acknowledgments that the novel "should not be construed as representative of present-day Thailand or the Thai people," its overall vision of this wondrous and decadent city is nonetheless very close to that found in such contemporary thrillers as John Burdett's "Bangkok Tattoo."
By the end of the 22nd century, the world has been ravaged by deadly viruses, the disappearance of entire species, the rising of the oceans and the loss of all power based on petroleum. Sailing ships and dirigibles transport goods. Computers still exist, but they are operated by treadle-power, like old-time sewing machines. Guns shoot "razor disks" rather than bullets. Factories employ megadonts -- genetically altered elephants -- to turn their dynamos. Even "the Empire of America is no more," while something unspeakable happened in Finland. Not least, gigantic corporations like PurCal and AgriGen have become supra-national forces, with their own armies.
The Thai kingdom has so far survived, in part because it has sealed itself off from the outside world, and through draconian measures managed to keep the food supply relatively safe. The Environment Ministry -- supported by the brutally patriotic "white shirts" -- maintains stringent border and biological security: It has been known to burn entire villages to the ground at the very first instance of deadly "blister rust," "cibiscosis" or "genehack weevil." However, in recent years, the Child Queen has allowed the upstart Trade Ministry to gain power and to encourage some small-scale foreign investment in the kingdom.
Pretending to be a developer of innovative "kink-springs," Anderson is in fact an agent of AgriGen, assigned to Bangkok to orchestrate a covert yet aggressive initiative by the Des Moines-based corporation. He employs Hock Seng, an aging but resilient Chinese who lost his shipping company, family and very nearly his own life a few years previous during the genocides in Malaya. Trusting no one, he dreams of re-establishing his name and wealth. By contrast, Jaidee, the so-called Tiger of Bangkok, is the pugnaciously idealistic captain of the white shirts, determined to preserve his country against the onslaught of foreign influence and corruption. His unsmiling Lt. Kanya suffers from some dark burden on her soul.
And then there is Emiko, the windup girl. Windups, or New People, are essentially genetically modified test-tube babies, creche-grown in Japan. In other countries they are branded and loathed as genetic trash, without true souls. All windups move with a herky-jerky gait, like puppets on invisible strings.
In essence, Emiko has been designed to be a supremely beautiful, compliant geisha. Obedience has been built into her DNA. Her skin has been made ivory smooth by reducing the size of her pores. Never intended to function in a tropical climate, Emiko has nonetheless been callously abandoned in Bangkok: Her patron decided "to upgrade new in Osaka." She was then bought by the unscrupulous Raleigh, a survivor of "coups and counter-coups, calorie plagues and starvation," who now "squats like a liver-spotted toad in his Ploenchit 'club,' smiling in self-satisfaction as he instructs newly arrived foreigners in the lost arts of pre-Contraction debauch."
Raleigh's nightclub soon features a very special sex show: Each night the brutalized Emiko must suffer the attentions of an inventively sadistic co-worker. Afterward, her body is for hire by anyone seeking a forbidden, transgressive thrill. The girl lives in near-suicidal despair.
Until the night she meets Anderson, who tells Emiko of an enclave of windups, "escapees from the coal war," dwelling in the forests to the North. Emiko soon dreams of fleeing her sordid destiny and making her way, somehow, to this village.
From the windup, the smitten Anderson learns of a mysterious Gi Bu Sen, who has developed a new blight-resistant fruit that has recently appeared in the Thai markets. Protected by the government and living in luxurious seclusion somewhere, this Kurtz-like farang can only be the renegade AgriGen scientist Gibbons, the greatest generipper in the world, long thought to be dead. He must be found and restored to the corporation. It is because of his genius -- and the kingdom's hidden storehouse of carefully preserved seeds -- that Thailand has been able to stay "one step ahead of the plagues."
As the novel advances, the political machinations grow increasingly tense. General Pracha, Minister Akkarat, a sinister adviser to the queen named Somdet Chaopraya, even the so-called "Dung Lord" all vie for power. Meanwhile, the increasingly troubled Lt. Kanya converses with a ghost, one who knows her secret. While Emiko may be the titular windup girl, Kanya is the novel's woundup woman, a human kink spring under intense psychological pressure. When everything begins to fall apart, these two will determine the fate of Krung Thep, the City of Divine Beings -- Bangkok.
Readers of science fiction will recognize multiple influences on this excellent novel: Cordwainer Smith, J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, China Mieville and even, possibly, Margaret Atwood, who proffers a similar vision of post-apocalyptic want, fanaticism and gene-manipulation in "Oryx and Crake" and "The Year of the Flood." Clearly, Paolo Bacigalupi is a writer to watch for in the future. Just don't wait that long to enjoy the darkly complex pleasures of "The Windup Girl."
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