Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Paolo Bacigalupi’s debut novel has won five major SF awards, including the Hugo and Nebula. It is billed as ‘a heart-stopping dystopian thriller… a razor-sharp vision of our near future’, while the author has been described as a ‘worthy successor to William Gibson’.
So far, so cyberpunk, right?
I have to admit, cynical as I am, I’ve heard all this before. Gibson’s been one of my favourite authors since I picked up Neuromancer in the late 80’s, and I’ve yet to come across the next cyberpunk novel to blow my mind, one that I’d be talking about for years to come. And anyway, isn’t cyberpunk now relegated, a product of last century? I couldn’t help wondering if The Windup Girl would be retreading old ground, or simply one of those books with a good idea poorly executed. Honestly, my hopes weren’t high; I’ve been disappointed all too often, promised much that has failed to deliver, and here comes another one.
As I read the first pages. I feared I was right. The Windup Girl is written in the present tense, which I found irritating at first. The reader is slam-dunked into a world of kink-spring technology (what?), one where characters speak to each other with the occasional oriental reference (huh?) dropped in for good measure. Not only that, but the technology they’re talking about is genetically modified fruit and algae baths, for crying out loud; where’s the godlike AI, the cool killer in mirror-shades? I closed the book, decided to watch TV instead.
I went back a couple of days later and read some more; same old, but I decided to persevere. After 70 or so pages, something clicked into place. Suddenly, the language was second nature to me; present tense was a good thing, giving a sense of immediacy – after all, these events are happening to the characters here and now. Flashbacks are the past, and are written as such. What was once irritating, was now refreshing, vibrant and alive. Here was a writer that wasn’t patronising me by explaining everything; instead, I was being made to think and learn as I followed the tale piece by piece. I wanted to – had to – know more.
I won’t go into the details of the plot for fear of spoiling any potential reader’s enjoyment of this book, but I will say it’s incredibly intricate and overall very satisfying. Events that occur earlier in the novel sometimes appear to be incongruous, but are all fully paid-off by the end of the novel. There are twists and turns and double-dealings aplenty, as well as one or two genuine surprises. It’s incredibly violent and brutal in places, yet there are moments of true poignancy and humour.
Each character is well-realised, moving beyond the familiar archetype of cop or company man to become fully-rounded human beings, acting in shades of grey rather than black and white. Given several points of view, it’s often difficult to decide who the villain is; again, this is good writing, making us to work, allowing us to think. The windup girl herself, Emiko, could have so easily become cliché, yet in Bacigalupi’s hands she becomes utterly believable; while not necessary the focus of the story (as it deftly weaves between several characters) it is her actions her relationships with others that help to determine the final act.
All good, but what really impressed me about The Windup Girl is the world Paolo Bacigalupi has created. His near-future Thailand feels more like prediction than science fiction – as all the best sci-fi does. It’s a world where corporations have dominance, but they have destroyed and damaged with genetic modification and viruses, rather than bettered through the creation of new technology. Fossil fuels have run out, natural wildlife had been made extinct by the dominance of species originally created to control pests. Sea levels have risen, and countries once only hours away by air travel can now only be reached by sea; that’s if the oceans haven’t already claimed them.
This all sounds very thoughtful, but it’s more than a warning from environmental supporters – but this world is frighteningly believable, even to an old cynic like me. Packed full of good ideas it may be, but the reader is never preached to, allowing The Windup Girl to remain a well-executed and exciting novel.
So far, so cyberpunk? I’m not sure. It certainly has the right attitude, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s writing style is blunt and immediate, so the ‘punk’ certainly exists, but it’s more about the relationship between humanity and the environment than man interacting with machine. Enviropunk, perhaps.
However it is categorised, there’s no doubt that The Windup Girl is a superb debut, an impressive combination of character, story and ideas. If this is the way forward for near-future sci-fi, then it’s going to be very exciting indeed.