Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publication Date: 9/1/09
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Blurb(GR): Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen's Calorie Man in Thailand. Under cover as a factory manager, Anderson combs Bangkok's street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history's lost calories. There, he encounters Emiko...
Emiko is the Windup Girl, a strange and beautiful creature. One of the New People, Emiko is not human; instead, she is an engineered being, creche-grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich in a chilling near future in which calorie companies rule the world, the oil age has passed, and the side effects of bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.
What Happens when calories become currency? What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits, when said bio-terrorism's genetic drift forces mankind to the cusp of post-human evolution? Award winning author Paolo Bacigalupi delivers one of the most highly acclaimed science fiction novels of the twenty-first century.
This is the kind of book that unceremoniously dumps you in the middle of a teeming, noisy world and demands that you sink or swim. Oh, and that noise that I mentioned? Yeah, it’s all slang, and in about five different languages – none of which you can understand. My advice is just try to float with it. Don’t stress out if you can’t understand half the words, or the vague references to “the incident” or “the situation in Finland.” All will come clear…trust me.
This story is set in a futuristic Thailand, which is one of the last countries “surviving”, after several plagues have wiped out the majority of human and plant life* and the sea levels have risen to cover most cities. Thailand has managed to endure by using levees and pumps (operated with spring-power, since all other fuels are scarce) to hold back the rising waters, and a hidden seed bank to provide new genetic material for food engineering. Unfortunately this makes it a nice fat target for the masses of human refugees, looking for a place to rebuild, and the greedy calorie corporations, which have already monopolized most of the world’s food supply by engineering plant species that can’t reproduce (thus ensuring that no one else will be able to grow them).
There are upwards of four main characters in this story (some of the minor characters take on larger roles later in the book) which seems like quite a lot. I think that the biggest danger with too many characters is that there won’t be enough time or energy devoted to any of them and in the end there’s no connection for the reader. I’ve definitely come across novels like that, where I just didn’t care enough about the characters because there wasn’t a chance to become attached to any of them (Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven comes to mind). There really wasn’t one single character in this book, no matter how minor, that I didn’t end up caring deeply about. One of the minor characters actually ended up becoming my favorite (Kanya!). All of these characters are deeply scarred(some more literally than others) by the years of famine and tragedy that they’ve gone through. Not one of them is a truly good person, and yet I cared for all of them and wanted them all to succeed (which was really hard, because they were often trying to manipulate and/or kill each other). It was powerfully moving to witness them all fight and flounder, and eventually realize that it doesn’t matter how much opium or how many jewels you’ve got stashed away in your bamboo walls, or how much you’ve betrayed everything you believe in just to get ahead – you can never escape the destructive power of nature, or your karma.
I can easily see how this book won’t be everyone’s cup o’ tea (Christina, I’m looking at you). There really isn’t very much action in this story (although I found myself frequently shocked by all the twists and turns). Instead there’s creepy political maneuvering and enough sinister machinations to get my evil laugh going and my fingers drumming together like Monty Burns. This is definitely more for those, like me, who are just as excited by psychological action as physical. The pacing is a bit slow, but I really enjoyed that – the writing is so good that I was happy to just float along and wallow in all the nice pretty words. This book was 100% right up my alley – I can even say that I genuinely enjoyed being confused for much of it. This one’s going on the favorites list!
*Brief scientist rant below:
One tiny little niggling problem I had with this book is the whole idea of viruses moving from plants to humans. While viruses frequently break through the animal/human barrier, I had always assumed that due to the differences in cell structure and modes of infection, plant viruses would be extremely unlikely to move to humans. However, I just googled this and found an article supporting a virus jumping from plants to humans.
Oh. My. God. It’s happening! Watch out everyone; it’s time to start hoarding baht and brushing up on your Thai!