Jan 19, 2010

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

While it's not steampunk, I'm including here at the blog because it was hands down the best piece of speculative fiction I read in 2010. There were others that were more entertaining, but for sheer quality and relevance, Paolo Bacigalupi wins.My memory fails me for how this became one of my research reads, but I seem to recall a recommendation from Gail Carriger. While the cover includes airships, they are not a key feature of the narrative--the technology of interest in The Windup Girl is genetically enhancement of both people and food.

Since I don't know enough about nineteenth century Asia to state this definitively, I remain guarded about judging The Windup Girl as utilizing the steampunk aesthetic. My suspicion is that it does, and because most North American readers have no idea what nineteenth century Asia was like, will not make the connection to steampunk. I'm hoping I'm right about this, because if I am, it's the answer to fellow steampunk scholar Jha Goh's search for steampunk that doesn't privilege WASP protagonists. It takes place in a future that seems to echo an Asia right before the Boxer rebellion, right down to the White Shirts, a group of militant police lead by the charismatic Jaidee, the "Tiger of Bangkok", once a famous muay thai fighter. The world has regressed in some areas of technology: you need a special license to use gasoline, air travel is limited to airships, and people generate electricity through kinetic energy, either self-made by pedaling, through the harnessed megadonts (genetically altered elephants), or held in high-tension crank-generators. In other ways, it has advanced: food is genetically altered to withstand the environmental plagues of the future, and artificial animals and humans can be manufactured. One of the more interesting ideas Bacigalupi explores is how in a future of nutritional scarcity, Calories become currency: one scene involving blood draining into the sewers is reflected upon as lost calories.

Even if I'm wrong about the setting having a steampunk aesthetic to it, the nature of the eponymous heroine, Emiko the Windup Girl echoes a number of other steampunk narratives concerned with artificial life. The automatons and golems of steampunk are simply retroactive versions of twentieth century SF's robots, androids, cyborgs, replicants and cylons. I don't necessarily think steampunk brings anything new to speculative fiction in terms of themes, but I do think that it deals with those themes in a fresh way, by clothing them in new/old skins. Emiko looks exactly like a human, like the replicants of Blade Runner and Cylons of the reimagined Galactica, but betrays her artificial genesis in her stutter-stop motion like other clockwork girls from Kleist's The Sandman to Finn von Claret's dance performance during Abney Park's "Herr Drosselmeyer's Doll", a built-in flaw that keeps Windups from becoming superior (and ultimately replacing) humans. Her journey of identity and self-actualization mirrors that of the clockwork girl Mattie in Ekaterina Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone, addressing the familiar SF ground of what constitutes "human". Consider the following conversation between Jaidee and one of his men concerning genetically altered Cheshire cats, which have effectively replaced regular cats due to their artificially enhanced camouflaging ability. The Cheshires are so successful as a species that they literally cannot be eliminated, despite the White Shirts' attempts to do so:

"I sometimes wonder if my family's cibiscosis was karmic retribution for all those cheshires."
"It couldn't be. They're not natural."
Somchai shrugs. "They breed. They eat. They live. They breathe." He smiles slightly. "If you pet them, they will purr."
Jaidee makes a face of disgust.
"It's true. I have touched them. They are real. As much as you or I."
"They're just empty vessels. No soul fills them."
Somchai shrugs. "Maybe even the worst monstrosities of the Japanese live in some way. I worry that Noi and Chart and Malee and Prem have been reborn in windup bodies. Not all of us are good enough to become Contraction phii. Maybe some of us become windups, in Japanese factories, working working working,you know? We're so few in comparison to the past, where did all the sould go? Maybe to the Japanese? Maybe into windups." (173-74)
As I've said, the artificial human is a trope of SF, not steampunk per se. But in reading The Windup Girl, Ted Chiang's "72 Letters" and Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone, I'm suspicious that steampunk deals with the artificial human in a way that is somewhat different from other types of SF. Not a conclusive statement by any stretch, and I welcome any thoughts on the matter.

Emiko, like all of Bacigalupi's characters, is a round and dynamic--while The Windup Girl contains an engaging plot, it is a novel of characters and ideas, and succeeds on both those levels beyond expectation. Maybe that's one of the reasons I want it to have steampunk elements, so that I can include it in my research. After reading numerous high adventures without much to say about the human condition, the environment, or the ethics of genetic science, it was a pleasure to read a work that not only addresses the issues, but does so in a satisfying manner. While Bacigalupi's future is a dystopia, he never abandons hope in the way many dystopic writers do. This future may not be so bright you have to wear shades (or goggles), but it's not the darkness of despair either.

Highly recommended.

13 comments:

  1. I'm having trouble reading this. The first three pages made me slam the book shut so I could walk off to do a lot of eye-rolling, and the introduction of Emiko was a fucking cringer on so many levels. I have a feeling my upcoming review is going to be long and wearisome.

    The question of whether a clockwork artificial person is qualitatively different from traditional SF androids ala Star Trek's Data is a good one and bears some looking into. What, for example, makes Tinka from Girl Genius different from Data? And it ties in with the question of prosthetic, too, I think.

    Anyway, I really was hoping to have finished the Windup Girl by now.

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  2. curious as to why the first three pages were eye-rolling...

    Yeah, most everything that happens to Emiko is cringe-worthy. But in the real world, what would happen to a female automaton that could perform sex acts and had no status as citizen? Let's face it, the future of robotics is already moving in that direction. SF that ignores it isn't working with any level of reality.

    No worries Jha - I'm just curious as to whether or not the setting seems to echo 19th century Asia. That's really my issue. Clearly not the book for you that it was for me.

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  3. Well, I'm hoping that Windup Girl ends up challenging this reality, rather than running with it and assuming "that's the way it'll go". As much as I like to tear stories to pieces, I prefer to do so with positive things to say!

    Does it evoke 19th Century Asia? Well, it's evocative of some form of Asia. I recognize a little of it, and a lot else I don't. It evokes another 19th C Asia which has been screwed over by Westerners, for sure! That's another topic for discussion though.

    And as for the first three pages, well, you know how Anderson's holding the fruit, describing it, and Bacigalupi calls it "ngaw"? I literally shouted at the book, "IT'S A FUCKING RAMBUTAN!" I believe he was using a bastardization of "ngoh", which is what the Thais call it. There is no doubt that he is an excellent writer, but cripes, three pages of one character fondling a fruit in bewilderment is a bit much, even for me, and I LOVE description. (This isn't really a negative sort of frustration.)

    Speaking of android people, have you seen this?

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  4. His bewilderment about the fruit is explained shortly.... The fruits in question should be extinct, but are not. It should not be able to survive in the plauge ridden future in which no natural fruits survive. It's a genetically enjanced version of rambutan that has been altered to survive in the plauge. The reason he is there is to find the local genetic seed banks, and scientists, for his employer. Thailand has something his company wants.

    Yes, he is an imperalistic westerner. Yes, he is a POV character who initially seems to be the sympathetic character. Ultimately he is not. And thats something Paolo is grappling with. Reader expectations about square jawed white characters in "alien" places... and reader expectations taht surrend them. The overt exotification of Rambutan is another way that paolo is grappling with this. Exotification is at the heart of the book. The Title character is the ultimate expression of this exotification. And Paolo is critical of this proccess, in a very careful and interesting way.

    As for the basterdization of "Ngoh"? That seems to be a fairly consistant way to convey something about the character. He is in thailand. Locals call it something. But he doesn't know the language well enough to reffer to it properly.

    Anyway. Not trying to lecture at you. Its a good book, and I hope you will give it a chance. Ultimately, it may NOT be for you though.

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  5. Good Lord, not another mash-up.

    Thanks for your comments Koolaid - I'd echo those thoughts myself.

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  6. I am in agreement with Koolaid's comments on Bacigalupi exploring the imperialistic world's collision with the alien (to us) cultures of south-east Asia, although I would add that Bacigalupi occupies himself with not just one cultural collision, but at least 4 if not 5 different cultures crammed together in close proximity: Chinese, Thai, Japanese, American, and possibly English (not sure on some of the whites who were constantly drinking whiskey at the bar, but some struck me as distinctly British). Bacigalupi devotes as much energy to exploring the contrasting racial philosophies of these ethnic groups as he does to the technology and setting of his dystopic future.

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  7. James - some of those men in the bar are definitely of a British stripe. And you're right about the clash of cultures within Asia - this is not a monolithic East.

    Jha - certainly, this Asia has still been "screwed over" by the West (as much as they have screwed each other as well), but it also seems to be an Asia that is demanding the future on its own terms, which seems positive to me.

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  8. Yes, and I did enjoy that bit. I would very much have preferred less of the Western invasion (and Japan? Again?). I have a review coming up, though.

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  9. The book definitely handles with steampunk elements, twisted from steam to kinetic and biofuel energy, and transplanted to dystopian future... called it 'caloriepunk'.

    I never really considered the book to be critical of the Western invasion, per se, nor of the destructiveness of technology, foreign trade, and other imperialistic and technocratic problems, and of the cultural-ethical struggle in Bacigalupi's Asia. In stead the book came across as critical of all the key players: the Asians (all majority and minority groups) where just as corrupt, selfish, racist, oppressive, etc., as the Westerners, and none of them where able to compromise in any form, nor see things from other perspectives.

    That's one of the reasons why I enjoyed the book. There were no good and bad guys. Besides a couple of clearly evil characters, most characters where morally ambiguous and stuck in their own shortsightedness.

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  10. Dax, I agree completely. Aside from Emiko, who remains a bit of an innocent, the rest of the cast is like the characters from Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find". The title pretty much says it all. None of these people are good or bad, but people - there aren't sides to be chosen so much as nuances to explore. Well said.

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  11. I picked this up on Friday and only (reluctantly) put it down for necessities like sleep. To be fair, I was coming at the novel as a biologist and historian rather than a cultural critic and my seven years of kickboxing in the basement of a Thai fusion restaurant hardly qualify me as an expert on Southeast Asia. However, I would argue that in focusing on the local culture of the setting and upon the minutiae of “steampunk” technology, and even upon the question of New People, the more important theme of "Windup Girl" has been neglected. The “environmental plagues of the future” are not simply a product of the future, but the out of control products of multinational corporations generated specifically to increase their own profits. In Bacigalupi’s world the already suspect Globalism of today has become a biological Imperialism inflicted upon entire ecosystems (including, obviously, humans); the fluidity of the contemporary World System made possible by extreme specialization and rampant exploitation of natural resources has created a planet nearly destroyed by climatic change. The story, to me, was about societies that are trying to claw their way back to something like the ease of our current lifestyle. However, while they have learned lessons of efficiency and local-appropriateness (the book evokes the design mantras of the seminal "Cradle-to-Cradle"); the intractable problem of exploiter and exploited remains as thorny as ever. I would even argue that, while perhaps unsubtle, the windup girl herself represents a metaphor for the broader question of whether biology determines the history of that relationship, or the reverse – particularly in an era in which biological change can be effected by human intellect.

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  12. Well-said parliamentwake. The multinational companies are definitely standing in for "Empire" in The Windup Girl. Great thoughts.

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