The most important thing a science fiction novel must be is believable, if it can do that then it can get away with anything else and The Windup Girl pulls this off wonderfully. Paolo Bacigalupi has created a future world, Thailand, so dense and teeming with life, with heat, and with mystery that you can almost smell this imagined city, feel the sweat on your body, hear the noise of the over-cramped city. This is a fully realized world that never once loses its internal consistency; everything that happens is a natural extension of the world Bacigalupi has created.
What most stuck me about this novel was how terrifying the actual possibility of this world he creates is. While we imagine we have total control over genetically modified seeds and crops, or no matter how certain we are that cloning is perfectly safe, Bacigalupi taps into that uneasy feeling we all have deep down that we’re not totally convinced we are masters of science. How do we know for certain that we aren’t creating something that could go horribly, horribly wrong? Whose to say that a real company like Monsanto won’t accidentally produce a strain of genetically modified wheat that winds up killing all the natural strains or infects some beetle that begins a plague? How can we really know all the possible consequences of our actions?
And this book is all about consequences and how each action effects another, seemingly unrelated action, how what one character does in an act of self defense can actually send an entire city into civil war. It’s a valid point to think about because it speaks of responsibility.
One of Bacigalupi’s great skills is in how he presents information in this world he has created. The names he’s given to the various blights, diseases, companies, and people feel absolutely genuine: blister rust, cibiscosis, calorie-men, yellow cards, white shirts, kink springs; Bacigalupi gets the feel of this future just right. He also draws on a lot of recognizable themes from other great science fiction stories: I could sense he was inspired a lot from ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Ghost In The Shell’, and the brilliant but little seen ‘Texhnolyze’, but that he’s also part of a new trend in science fiction to get away from urban American settings and make it a more global genre – District 9, Halo, and Junot Díaz’s short story ‘Monstro’.
This book is also part of another trend in science fiction where it takes its themes seriously to tell a story worth paying attention to: Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go’ and McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ both come to mind as stories that are warnings about our own future and, like any good sci-fi story, what it means to be human. And the final scene of this novel, the epilogue scene, is a wonderful scene where old meets new amid total devastation.
And though I am by no means an alarmist concerning the advancement of science, Paolo Bacigalupi makes a strong case for always siding with caution because you can never be to sure what trouble you might get yourself into. In that way this book is somewhat similar to Lovecraft’s ‘At The Mountains of Madness’ in that you better be careful about messing with a nature you do not fully understand or else you might unleash something so terrible as to never be able to go back.
This is a fantastic novel full of great ideas, beautiful imagery (Bacigalupi is a helluva writer in that regard), and terrifying possibilities. The book is a tad too long, but never dull and no opportunity is wasted to continue building the Thailand in this story.