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Sunday, May 09, 2010

Review: The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl(DRM-free ebook) is Paolo Baciagalupi's novel about a post-fossil fuel economy and dystopia. I stumbled across it by reading two short stories set in the same world (free download).

Set in Thailand, the novel poses an energy poor future, one in which fossil fuels are expensive and almost non-existent, where elephants wind giant springs to store energy, and bio-plagues released by corporations have swept the world, wiping out any sources of food not genetically engineered to resist the plagues. Genetic engineering has become far advanced, enabling the creation of beings who are subservient to humans. These new breed of slaves are called windups, since they have jerky motions genetically engineered into them to make them distinguishable.

The plot itself is complicated, and seem designed more to show off the milieu than anything else. The characters themselves are not, with fairly simple motivations to drive them: many are even caricatures that you would expect.

What shines in the novel, however is the world-building and the verisimilitude. Most novels set in South-East Asia are terrible, poorly researched and with no regard for the culture and interactions between the mix of races. Liz William's Snake Agent was the most horrible offender, but most aren't much better. Bacigalupi, however, must either have really lived in South-East Asia, or has done such meticulous research that no one else has done before. An early MacGuffin, for instance, is easily identified by a South East Asian as the Rambutan, but few non-Asians have heard of the fruit, let alone think to use it as a MacGuffin.

Another sign of the incredible work Bacigalupi has done is to note the tension between the local Chinese and the native races. It's accurate, intelligent, and very believable. Even the names of the characters (one of them is called Tan Hock Seng, something you'll only find in South East Asian names) correctly indicate where they are from and what their likely cultural attitudes are. The language, when it switches to Mandarin or Hokkien, is also recognizable and correct. This novel was clearly written by someone who respects South East Asian culture well enough to get things right, and that in itself is highly commendable.

At the very least, I think you should read the short stories, and then decide for yourself whether or not you want more Bacigalupi. My big disappointment is that I don't think the novel is as great as the short stories are (the short stories aren't all set in Thailand, but do have elements also found in the novel). On the other hand, the exploration of the themes, and the accuracy of the novel with respect to its depiction of South-East Asia compels me to recommend it. Well worth your time, if you've got any interest at all in these topics.

[Update: The Windup Girl has won this year's Nebula Award for best novel]


Shalmanese said...

If they can afford to use elephants to wind up springs, they can afford to take the food they would have fed the elephants and convert them into biofuels. The SE Asian culture may be accurate but the science is not :(.

Piaw Na said...

The science isn't perfect, and he's definitely not a scientist. See:

Unknown said...

Thanks for the review, it makes me want to read it now. I too share my disdain for movies or books set in Asia, obviously written by people who never lived there or people who don't have a clue about what they're writing. Case in point last week I saw this movie called Long Life, Happiness, Prosperity... half of the bananas there couldn't even speak proper Cantonese (they obviously practiced very hard), and the main actress didn't even look Chinese. She's (*#)$# Sandra Oh, the most Korean looking person out there, yet playing a Chinese woman? RIDICULOUS. You know why I even saw the movie? Because Netflix recommended it. A buncha 老美 saw it, loved it, think it's good, thus Netflix recommended it... uber lame. I realize most audiences here can't even hear the difference between Cantonese, Mandarin, Shanghainese, Hunanese, or ABCs pretending to speak any of these, but it's just disgusting how these bananas are trying to portray what they're not. My other gripe about 老美 media is that... people constantly make fun of Asian FOB English, but have you heard them try to speak any Asian dialects? It is even worse!!! Why can't they get the f***ing basic tones right first before they start trying to say things like Schezwan ("Hey Kevin, is it chez-wang? chez-wong? sssschez won?") WTF, it's Sìchuan mkay? RME. One other thing that is possibly worse than sloppy Asian-themed Hollywood/media is the audience that consumes it.

Piaw Na said...

I had the same complaint about Firefly. Listening to the commentary track on Firefly was even worse: you had the producers and writers congratulating themselves on the use of Chinese in the show, but they mangled the language to the point of non-recognizable.

Ok, maybe you could say the language was pidginized. But the problem was they got real mandarin speakers to do the automated voices, so you could really tell they had access to real mandarin speakers. It's so annoying. Yes, buy the book.