Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Repost: Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Originally written for Ay-Leen the Peacemaker's Beyond Victoriana series.

In all fairness, I probably should not have been reading and watching several other fun books before embarking on Paolo Bacigalupi's Windup Girl. Or rather, putting Windup Girl down after the third, infuriating chapter and letting my resentment fester while reading more fun books and watching Avatar the Last Airbender.

Paolo Bacigalupi is clearly an excellent writer. (He has to be, after all, because he's been published in plenty of places, and has been nominated for a Nebula.) Windup Girl is filled with suspense, with convoluted politics that only keen minds can cook up, with gritty scenarios that really show the worst of humanity. This is a world where economies run on calories for energy, where tinkering with genes in order to create food (hence, more calories) is a large-scale industry, where gene samples have all sorts of potential and are thus regarded as treasures. Windup Girl piqued my interest for one primary reason: it is set in a science-fictional Thailand, and I was curious to see how my neighbour would be treated. Of course, most people would be reading it for the story; I would be reading it to pick on details. If you don't care about tiny details like accuracy, narrative trends and revisionism, move along right now. Steampunk Scholar Mike Perschon has a much more kinder review.

The story begins with Anderson Lake, an agent for a large corporation called AgriGen, because, as we all literary race theorists know, no truly multi-cultural story is complete without white people in the picture. And like many other white people, he is a mover of the plot, a shaker of the scene. He doesn't do it consciously, of course. When we first meet Anderson, he is doing a spot of shopping in a noisy Thai market. The descriptions are evocative, and the choice of present-tense lends an air of immediacy to the story. But Anderson is puzzling over a fruit he has never seen before. Bacigalupi waxes poetic about this for several pages, taking his time to describe the surroundings and the fruit in Anderson's hand. Being a fan of purple prose, I enjoyed the description, but after about the third page, I almost shouted at Anderson, 'IT'S A FUCKING RAMBUTAN. GET OVER IT.' How was I supposed to know that rambutans had been extinct for quite some time? How long am I supposed to bear with Anderson on the description of one fruit that is extremely common in my region?

Our next introduction is to Tan Hock Seng, a Malayan refugee and Anderson Lake's assistant manager. It takes a while for me to understand what has happened to my own country in this story - apparently, the fundamentalist bug caught on. This would have been awesome to explore, but of course, the story is set in Thailand, and not Malaya, so who cares what goes on there, right? Being a Malaysian-Chinese myself, I found his character arc the most compelling, as he goes from misdaventure to misadventure, trying to survive, and as more of his character is revealed, the more relatable he becomes, unlike his empty-vessel employer.

At this point of the book, I start having problems with the language. The insertion of non-English phrases is somewhat jarring, since the phrases don't add anything to the perspectives of the characters and are just window-dressing. The way ideas are processed in language is well documented, in terms of linguistic determination, and certain phrases communicate ideas that English-speakers would not have thought about. None of the phrases Bacigalupi uses does, though, so I'm not sure what the point was. Nonetheless, Hock Seng felt real to me by the end of the story, and the prejudice he faces as a yellow-card refugee in Thailand is believable, if rather harsh for what I remember (Malaysian-Thailand relations tend to be fairly friendly).

The book was ambivalent for me by this time, but the introduction of the titular character, Emiko the Windup Girl, was horrendous, cringe-inducing, and it would have been really nice to have read a review beforehand which gave me a TRIGGER WARNING. Made in Japan (really? Japan? Ya don't say), unsuited for this equatorial climate and sexually abused for her exotic Other-ness, Emiko's arc is supposed to give us some indepth introspection into the state of a character who must overcome everything that is instinctual in herself, built into her genes, in order to gain mastery of herself.

If this concept wasn't so real, so close to the reality of so many women all over the world, it would still be yawn-worthy, as the idea of a woman overcoming her upbringing, eventually snapping and reacting violently against her sexual abuse is extremely overdone and not just an android thing. As a woman, I am huffy that this cheap route was taken, and not just a little frustrated that once again, a female titular character is subjected to the sexual abuse narrative as the Worst Thing To Happen To Her. As an Asian, I am infuriated that Bacigalupi chose Thailand, already reputed for its sex tourism industry, to portray the abuse of a female character. Realism aside, do we assume that this happens nowhere else? Would the story have been different if it had happened in an European country? But no, it has to be Thailand, because shit like this is normal in Thailand, amrite?

The rest of the book also proves alternatingly frustrating and satisfying. If it weren't for side characters like Kanya and Mai, I would have given up on the idea of gender equity within the story, but even they are attached to other male characters - Kanya's arc grows out of Jaidee's, and Mai's is inextricably linked to Hock Seng's. (However, I'm very fond of the relationship between Hock Seng and Mai, as it's a relationship one sees very rarely growing out of their circumstances).

Being that this review is for Beyond Victoriana, let's have a look at the elements of steampunk in the novel, and this is one of my favourite things about the book: in the entire novel, there is no mention of "cogs" or overemphasis on "brass". There are dirigibles, but they are mentioned as casual parts of the landscape, not something to focus on. Even so, the industrial feel associated with steampunk is ever-present within the novel, and powerfully so. I might say it has a different feel, since it is almost post-industrial.

I'm not going to pretend I understand the technology within this story beyond, "it runs on calories," which means more focus is placed on creating energy than on what is being produced. Hence, the focus is placed equally on the technology that runs in this world, and the people who have to run it. For larger generators, megadonts (which are really just elephants, I don't know why the renaming is necessary; the mahouts are still called the same thing) are used. This adds a gritty, human side to the industrialization that goes on within the factory floor that is usually in the background, but pushed to the fore here.

Because this book was recommended to me by Mike Perchon on the account that it is set in Thailand, and I am South East Asian by birth and upbringing, I suppose I should comment on the authenticity of whether it fits descriptions of 19th century Thailand. Without a couple of very important clues, I would never have guessed this was set anywhere near that century, because Thailand is not all that familiar to me, and it is such a dystopian in this story, what little I do know is barely recognizable to me. The first is that there is still a monarchy in place in this novel. The second is that the neighbouring country, Malaysia, is still called Malaya. Other than that, I'm actually not sure what the hell is going on there, historically, because the entire geography of the world has also been reshaped - the US and many European countries are under water, as well as much of the rest of Asia. With such a catastrophe (the cause of which is never named, but we'll blame it on global warming and use of too much natural fuel), it is impossible to get a grasp on the international politics of the time, aside from the corporations that ply their trade with genes. This means that even without armies, imperialism is still imminent.

The lack of justification for changing the geographical landscape notwithstanding, it would have been nice if Bacigalupi had paid some tribute to the actual history of what had really happened, and segued with that, as opposed to jumping straight in with his fabricated Thailand and Malaya. It implies that there is no reason to explore why Malaya has degenerated into what appears to be xenophobic fundamentalism, when for centuries, we've been known to be one of the most open ports for foreigners and ethnic groups have co-existed. Not only that, but Thailand's vibrant culture is ignored in favour of a purely gritty depiction, in which corruption and poverty is tantamount.

I know this makes for an awesome story, but I hate it when authours do that to the culture they are writing whilst not belonging to it. It is one thing to do it for a dominant country like Britain or America, because there will be many, many positive depictions of them to compensate for other purely negative depictions. Thailand does not get much exposure by way of literature, and most of it either show how exotic it is, Other-ing the country. This is where the setting fails to engage me.

Let me go on a brief tangent: Hock Seng, to me, is the most compelling character, even next to Emiko. He is most carefully depicted, most human. More importantly, his depiction is culturally entrenched, even if it is somewhat superficial - he reminds Doctor Chan, "here we are all Chinese"; he has a history that is always on the forefront of his mind; and, most significantly to me, he maintains a shrine to Kuan Yin, Goddess of Mercy. These aren't things which are relevant to the plot. Of course, this Taoist practice is replaced with Buddhistic philosophy, but this also works in favour of his characterization. Because of this, we are reminded that he is Chinese. (There are some things which I think are wrong, of course, but then, we Chinese are wide and varied, so it probably would not bug me as much as it might bug someone else.)

Thailand and its inhabitants are given no such cultural markers, except for monks (placed in charge of Thailand's greatest treasure: gene samples) and the denouncing of Jaidee. As a result, the story could be set anywhere. Jaidee and Kanya could be Joshua and Carrie. Why Thailand? That is a question to which only Bacigalupi knows. What is the result? Yet another novel in which a foreigner re-writes the history of a culture that doesn't belong to him, blending fact and fiction in a blend which is unrecognizable. The sexual abuse of Emiko didn't have to happen in Thailand; are only Asians so mistrustful of androids? Or is it expedient to view Asians as backward enough to avoid progress? Where is the deviation from actual history, and why is it not important to mention?

In steampunk, we engage heavily in revisionism, as this novel has done. But to do so while ignoring factual history as has been recorded by its various participants is extremely irresponsible, and adds to the large pool of general ignorance that's too big already. It means that it's all too easy for those benefitting from the imperialism of the past to re-write history as they please, even histories they do not own.

The Windup Girl was incredibly difficult to read for this reason. I could have done without Anderson and Emiko; Jaidee, Hock Seng, and Kanya carried the story well enough. Emiko being a catalyst for some actual plot movement could easily have been a local, human prostitute making the same decisions. While enjoying Kanya's development and her final decision in the story, I would have enjoyed it more if she had done it on her own terms, without the ghost of Jaidee, and while Hock Seng's arc is not reconciled, it still ends on a positive note (for me, anyway, YMMV). But as a titular character, Emiko deserved better.

Others enjoy the story for the cultural clashes; some for the setting; others still more for the questions brought up. The tropes are the there, but the blend is different. If that's the sort of thing you're looking for, this is the book for you. Me, I would have preferred a different mix.


  1. Why Thailand? In the novel's future setting, The Kingdom of Thailand is the only country which has not been subjugated by the Calorie companies. It has survived the new "bio-imperioalism" imposed by the calorie companies. they spread blights and plauges, destorying all non-immune food crops. Then they sell the starving nation the immune/barren crops and a huge markup. Thailand is free, because they have their own immune crops, and have kept the bulk of the blights out.

    This is an echo of Thailand's place in South East asian history as one of the few (only?) south east asain countries to not fall under western colonial rule at one point or another.

    Doesn't the countries Modern name "Thai"come mean "Free " and is specifically an allusion to this historical status? I could be way off, but this is my rather rudimentary understanding of things.

    Anyway, I'm not going to criticize your reactions to the book. They all seem perfectly valid reasons to dislike it. But you did ask "why Thailand," so I thought I'd throw this out there, and say that from my point of view, The setting was critical to the themes being explored.

  2. That's definitely valid, being that Thailand is "Asia's Switzerland", but there are other politically neutral countries that the novel could have been set in. That's why I was asking. In fact, I could even ask, "why Asia?"

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Jha: Thanks for the review--I was looking for a Malaysian's POV. While Hock Seng does sound intriguing, I'm not sure if I'd be able to actually read this without throwing it at a wall several times. I'll give it a pass based on your review.

  4. You're welcome. It's definitely a book to borrow from the library. I'd be very interested in a Thai perspective on the book myself.

  5. (Here via Exp_horizons on LJ)

    Thank you for writing this. I was already leery of the book, given that it wasn't written by an SEA author, and this just confirms that the objectification of the region in question is going to turn me off. I'll probably read it eventually, but I won't be buying it.