Monday, February 15, 2010

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

I went into this one with expectations and not much else -- like an outbreak of the flu, gushing reviews and name-drops spread over my Google Reader, and I knew I had to read it. It made Time Magazine's top ten list, which is, one supposes, a big deal (they still print magazines?) for genre fiction. The Windup Girl sort of recalls the big fish of cyberpunk fiction in its dense world-building and dystopian almost-future, tracking a half-dozen or so characters across the tumultuous few weeks of a coup d'etat in post-petroleum bubble burst Bangkok, and wins some pretty hefty points both for showing off some very meaty world-building and for not showing off; the novel unravels some of its key background points, but the reader is left to fend for themselves in trying to extrapolate what Bacigalupi means when he talks about "The December 12th Coup" or "THE INCIDENT" in Malaysia, or on the precise means and ends of the calorie companies that make up the spooky boogeyman of the novel. There's a lot of reading between the lines to do, but those of us who dig into that sort of thing will find that Bacigalupi's logic remains pretty consistent.

Still, there's some tangle to cut through -- early chapters put me off a little bit. I mean, I get that your novel is about nationalistic tension and allegory, but when the white protagonist is a greedy, opportunistic wealthy business man, the Chinese protagonist is a shady, slippery middle manager who only refers to the white dude as "foreign devil" (no really!), the Thai character is a jolly, in-your-face former Muay Thai champion (yeah, really!) and the titular Windup Girl is a Japanese bio-engineered super geisha-- it's hard to duck out of calling it a little problematic on a couple of levels; especially in attempting to convey graphic horror in rape scenes (yeah, heads up -- there are a few of those), Bacigalupi leans a little too close to exploitation; I was squicked enough by an early scene that I nearly called it quits on the novel as a whole.

All the same, the novel quits dragging its feet about half-way through, and once it becomes clear that the awkward "Pretty Woman" sub-plot is disposable it picks up. There are some oddities, like a cop-out of an epilogue, a few characters that veer too far into the realm of the cartoony (you'll know him when you meet him) and early subplots that go nowhere (which maybe warrant textual analysis, or which maybe indicate a more expansive, Mieville-ish setting that Bacigalupi is setting up), but once the novel's principle plot of coup d'etat in dystopian future Bangkok gets moving it finds its feet; Bacigalupi's prose is lean and fairly filler-less, and as a triumph of world-building it is, for me, a happier and more intriguing answer to "What comes next after cyberpunk?" than "I guess steampunk comes next!"

The Windup Girl is out now on Night Shade Books.

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