The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

thewindupgirlI guess 2010 was a dark year.

I thought it would be interesting to read the tied winners of the 2010 Hugo for Best Novel back-to-back (The City & The City by China Mieville and The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi), just to see what traits could cause such an even division among the Hugo voters. Both novels were dystopian in nature, dark and unromantic, with characters driven by instinct and purpose, rather than by love or honor. The most common characteristic between the two novels is that the worlds within which they occur are the most predominant and richly developed aspects of each novel.  For both Mieville and Bacigalupi, their plots and characters are secondary to the environment in which they interact.

But that isn’t to say that the characters and plots of both stories are mere throwaway devices created only as fodder for action on the gameboard worlds that have been painstakingly designed by both authors. The stories and characters are as solid as their environments– it’s just that, in both stories, the environment is the main character.  The environment is in the driver’s seat for both books.

I can see why both The City & The City and The Windup Girl tied for best novel that year. The quality and originality are stellar and even surpass all five nominees of this year’s Hugo cycle (no surprise there, though). Still, my vote for the 2010 Hugo Best Novel goes to…

The City & The City by China Mieville! See my review here.

Why? They were equally well-written and original. What made The City & The City better?

Mainly because it doesn’t have any graphic rape scenes. And, partly because I like my protagonists to not be greedy, selfish assholes who should do the world a favor and DIE.

I’m simple like that.

My review of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

I think I’m open-minded enough to recognize and appreciate good writing, even when I don’t care for a particular story. Which is why it is difficult for me to commit to my dislike of The Windup Girl.

What I liked:
1. Amazingly well-constructed world. The Windup Girl takes place in future Thailand, when the cataclysmic repercussions of climate change have resulted in plagues, extinctions, and policies of political and economic isolationism. People live in the “Age of Contraction” or “post-Expansion,” when nations pull away from one another for their own survival during this famine. Except, of course, the greedy corporate machines who seek to gain a stronghold in isolated, independent Thailand through promises of “gene-hacked” wheat and “gene-ripped” soy.

Science seems to respond to the pressures of contraction with strange solutions: giant, gene-manipulated elephants (megadonts) replace machinery; mutated algae slime replaces oil; dangerous methane replaces electricity; DNA is modified with gears and switches to replace humanity with windup people; combustible dirigibles replace airplanes; and light-refracting cheshires replace household cats (Why? And who financed that project?). This isn’t quite steampunk, but what is it? Gene-punk? Spring-punk?

2. Cultural implications Bacigalupi does a good job of avoiding generic Asianisms by introducing characters of varying Asian backgrounds and allowing their interactions to define the complexity of each culture. Also, recurring themes of Buddhism and reincarnation add texture to the story.

My favorite example of this is “phii,” ghosts of the recently deceased who just hang around, being angry at their survivors, because they have nowhere better to go. When you’re dealing with reincarnation in a dystopia, there is no karmic reward after death. Life sucks. Reincarnated life still sucks. Besides, with famine and plagues, more people are dying than being born, so who are you going to reincarnate into? So the ghosts just hang around and harass the living. It’s a clever thought.

3. Gorgeous prose Bacigalupi is a talented writer. In the early chapters, before I got too carried away by the story, there were passages I would reread, just to enjoy the rhythm and language. Such a beautiful style for such an ugly world.

4. Makes me want to eat fruit When plagues claim the majority of fresh produce, gene-hacked fruit becomes a delicacy. Bacigalupi’s writing made my mouth water when the characters enjoyed a banana, a slice of mango, or savored the strange, new gnaw.

All those good things, but…

What I didn’t like:
1. Graphic rape scenes. This is a constant criticism I have of contemporary literature. I find that too many novelists, most often male, rely on rape trauma to develop their female characters. It’s as if nothing else could possibly happen to a woman to motivate, grow, or inspire a change in development. Besides that, the rape scenes are often violently graphic, yet I get a sense that there are people out there who are titillated by such descriptions. Because of this, I often question the author’s true motivations for including such scenes.

I’m no prude, but I think, “He took her in the back and raped her,” is just as powerful as a two-page description of every sexual violation done to the character. But really, let’s get away from the rape.  Rape is horrible in reality, and unimaginative in stories. It’s been done already. Overdone, in fact. Let’s find new ways to develop our female (and male) characters.

Besides, I’ll never look at a wine bottle the same way again.

2. All of the characters are horrible, ego-driven individuals who should die of blister-rust. As they should be. This is an apocalyptic world, in which only the survivors inhabit.  The romantic, good-willed heroes I want to read about likely died of cibiscosis. Bad people with selfish egos adapt and survive in harsh worlds. This is believable.  But it doesn’t make me like it any better.

So, good story. Stellar writing.  Well-developed. But much too harsh for my taste.

The City & The City by China Mieville


Can a fantasy novel truly be a fantasy novel if it lacks traditional fantasy elements like magic, myth, and the supernatural? Does it matter?

The Hugo voters don’t seem to think so.

The City & The City by China Mieville takes readers to an imaginary eastern European urban landscape, at an unspecified (but likely modern or near future) era where a mysterious murder has just occurred. Written in familiar crime-noir style, it’s up to Inspector Tyador Borlu to solve the mystery, which quickly escalates into a touchy international incident.

So what about this qualifies as fantasy, you ask?

Nothing, yet everything.

The two international cities entwined in this murder are physically and geographically entwined upon each other. Not just adjacent to one another, but overlapping each other. (At first, I thought the two cities were inter-dimensionally overlapping, in some sort of parallel universe-type story, but, no, they physically overlap one another which, if you think about it, is actually more fantastical than a run-of-the-mill parallel universe plot.)

Seriously, try to imagine geographically overlapping, yet independent, city-states. Now, try to imagine the political and social ramifications of such an arrangement.

Two cities. Beszel and Ul Qoma. Separate cities with their own citizenry, cultures, and political and economic structures, but located on the same latitudinal/longitudinal coordinates somewhere in Europe. Some areas are strictly Besz, other areas are strictly Ul Qoman, while some areas are “grosstopical” or “crosshatched”– belonging both to Beszel and Ul Qoma. In many areas, there may be one street with two different names, resulting in next-door neighbors who live a nation apart, threatening an international incident if they so much as look at one another. And it’s all policed by an unseen, yet responsive power that enforces these geographically permeable, yet politically and socially impermeable borders.

Are you imagining the ramifications now?

The City & the City addresses social compliance to inexplicable, yet unquestioned taboos. It presents a border situation that seems so ridiculous, so fantastic, until it starts to sound a little too familiar. It also addresses the absurdity of disjointed urban life where, even without unreasonable, politically imposed borders, multiple cultures can share the same street, with the smells of their ethnic foods intermingling in the air, while the people themselves weave around, never raising their eyes to acknowledge one another. It’s a story about society– the ultimate law enforcement squad.

And it’s all wrapped up in a dark, shiny package of crime-noir drama.

And it’s pretty fantastic.

If you’ve shied away from China Mieville in the past, either because of his “weird fiction,” verbose language skills, or you prefer to read authors who don’t look like they could beat you up (seriously, this guy is probably no stranger to a fight), this might be a good place to give him a try. He stays true to the crime-noir genre, with pared down language and a distant, but active narrator, but injects social commentary and an imaginary, fantastic landscape. Some may say that The City & The City does not qualify as true SF/F, but I have to disagree. Any story that can capture my imagination, twist it into something unfamiliar, and introduce new and impossible possibilities meets my criteria for SF/F fiction.

Next read: the other 2010 Hugo best novel award winner, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.