Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The story happens in a future Thailand in a world where genetic plaques have transformed much of the food crops inedible or extinct. Genetic manipulation has been able to keep some of the food production running. Much of the food production is done by “calorie companies” which sell food, and also plants which are usually programmed to give just one harvest, so that new seeds must be bought every year. The calorie companies are also ready to almost anything to get their hands on seed banks which contain pre-catastrophe seeds. Those could be utilized for new resilient food plants which would mean more profit.
The story is told by several different viewpoint characters. One is American business man running a spring factory, and working for a calorie company. Another is his Chinese secretary who has a few hidden agendas; another is a Jaidee, a leader of a corrupt militia force, “white shirts”. The name character, and the most interesting character in the book, is The Windup Girl, Emiko, who is a Japanese secretary/courtesan who has been left back by earlier Japanese trade mission. She is gene modified and programmed human, whose skin is so soft and smooth that it doesn't contain any sweat pores and so any heavier exercise overheats her. To overcome that, she needs a glass of ice water. The author’s grasp of thermodynamics is on par with his grasp of other aspects of physics and science.

As science fiction the book is a failure - practically everything having even remotely something to do with science or technology is laughingly stupid and wrong. I could write a long essay of the stupidities in this book. Starting from the fact that in energy poor situation the only alternative energy used is methane produced by compost (sic!) piles, and that is used apparently mainly for lighting. I wonder how much of the energy produced by burning methane is released as light? 1%? 2%? Springs which are wound by "mastodonts", apparently gene modified elephants, are used as another energy source. I find it hard to believe that it would efficient to feed giant animals to produce mechanical labour and save it in that form loaded in springs, instead of using the food as a direct source of bio energy. And there are a lot of other stupidities. When I decided to consider the book as fantasy, not as science fiction, it was tolerable. It is so sad that that author didn’t consult anyone who has any knowledge of alternative energy sources (or any technology or sciences), as I think that few of the errors in the book are really necessary to the plot, and could easily have been corrected. In that case this would have extremely good book, probably for someone who doesn't care about, or who isn't able to notice the stupidities, this IS extremely good book.

Now the book is "only" pretty good. The world and the characters are portrayed wonderfully and the plot is fresh, and it goes to some unexpected places. In one way this is disappointing, as there are so many wasted opportunities.

This is second of this year’s Hugo-nominated books I have read, from these two (another is Wake) this is the better one.

361 pp.

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