07 January 2010

Writing on Reading: The Windup Girl

By now everyone's heard about The Windup Girl, by Paulo Bacigalupi. Time magazine picked it as the number nine book of 2009, stating "Bacigalupi is a worthy successor to William Gibson: this is cyberpunk without computers."
Bacigalupi has created "...a post-petroleum world where internal combustion and electricity are vanishingly rare and almost all energy comes from biology... As digital technology faded, biotech mutated out of control..."

There's no question Bacigalupi is an excellent world-builder. As I mentioned in the beginning of December, Bacigalupi has a rich, detailed paradigm which he developed writing short stories. In fact, the protagonist of his critically-acclaimed short story "Yellow Card Man" is one of the protagonists of The Windup Girl. This is particularly clever. Authors take note: You can create worlds and characters in short fiction and recycle them in novels.

There are five or six main characters in the novel (depending on if you want to count the city or not):

  • Anderson Lake, a "calorie man", seeking an elusive seedbank
  • Hock Seng, Lake's jack-of-all-trades, the "Yellow Card Man", who yearns for his former respect and affluence
  • Emiko, the "windup girl", a genetically-engineered japanese sex slave, who wants to escape and live in freedom with other "New People"
  • Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, a Captain of the Environment Ministry "white shirts", aka thugs
  • Kanya Chirathivat, a "white shirt" officer and a double-agent, seeking revenge for her family's demise
  • The City of Divine Beings, aka Bangkok, Thailand, in danger of being swallowed by the ocean, overrun with refuse, refugees and disease

While the exceptional world-building and unique characters may
engage--and even thrill--many genre readers, this novel is not for everyone.
As Phillip K. Dick said at the end of Paycheck And Other Classic Stories: There is one restriction in a novel not found in short stories: the requirement that the protagonist be liked enough or familiar enough to the reader so that, whatever the protagonist does, the readers would also do, under the same circumstances...or, in the case of escapist fiction, would like to do. As stated before, The Yellow Card man was born in a short story so I do not believe Bacigalupi was concerned with his characters' likability. Thus, readers who prefer sympathetic characters may not find the protagonists in The Windup Girl to their taste.

Furthermore, as I've quoted before, Robert Silverberg says: the basis of all the successful and lasting narrative of the past five thousand years [is]: A sympathetic and engaging character (or an unsympathetic one who is engaging nevertheless), faced with some immensely difficult problem that it is necessary for him to solve, makes a series of attempts to overcome that problem, frequently encountering challenging sub-problems and undergoing considerable hardship and anguish, and eventually, at the darkest moment of all, calls on some insight that was not accessible to him at the beginning of the story and either succeeds in his efforts or fails in a dramatically interesting and revelatory way, thereby arriving at new knowledge of some significant kind. I would not say The Windup Girl utilizes this type of plot. Thus, readers who prefer a traditional structure may not find this novel to their liking.

In the interests of full disclosure, while Nancy Kress says on her blog: "Paolo Bacigalupi's debut novel, The Windup Girl, is almost unbearably brutal.", for this reader, the rape scenes of Emiko were too brutal.

All this brings me to my point: The Windup Girl is not a traditional genre novel with conventional characters and plots. This is not the science fiction of Dick, Silverberg or Kress. I believe The Windup Girl goes beyond genre traditions and expectations; it is a new kind of novel.

It is a post-genre science fiction novel.

Kudos, Mr. Bacigalupi.


ssas said...

Ok, I'd better get to reading it. It's on my pile. Sounds good, and I love the cover!

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