Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Windup Girl

Paolo Bacigalupi The Windup Girl (2009)

Pump Six was an astonishing collection of short stories in which Paolo Bacigalupi wrestled with life on Earth after the fossil fuels have run out - energy measured as calories, everything driven by kinetic power stored in kink springs, flooded cities and the environment overrun by out of control GM species. The big corporations have become more powerful than any government, particularly those agricultural corporations holding us all to ransom with their engineered strains of wheat being the only ones which will still grow in this oddly mediaeval landscape. It's terrifyingly plausible, not only through the power of the author's visionary writing, but because there's a lot of it that's worryingly familiar.

The Windup Girl goes one further than the short stories collected as Pump Six, attempting to paint a wider picture from this same horrible and probably impending future - the sequestration of an entire sovereign nation - Thailand in this case; corporate takeover effected by means of corporate sponsored revolution and strategic assassination as experienced by a small group of participants. Of these, perhaps the most striking is the windup girl of the title, Emiko, an engineered human bred in Japan as an executive toy, now forced to work in a Thai brothel having found herself alone in a country where her kind are despised and routinely composted as less than human. Emiko ends up serving as a metaphor for nature itself, a microcosmic echo of the ruined world she inhabits as, pushed too far by the abuse of wealthy owners, she goes nuts and starts snapping necks; except it's more convincing than that may sound.

It's one of those novels from which no-one emerges as particularly likeable, and the background noise of low-level suffering, coercion, and brutality - none of which is really so different to events unfolding right now in certain corners of the globe - is slightly depressing. Also, because it's all bound up with political and economic intrigue rendered in Bacigalupi's meticulously ornate prose, I actually found it a little hard to follow in places; and on a critical footing, I'd say the novel really could have stood to be a fair bit shorter as it seems to lose some of the focus which worked so well in Pump Six and others.

The Windup Girl probably isn't quite so amazing as reputed, but it's nevertheless impressive even if I probably won't be re-reading it again for a while. Its message is about forty times more sobering than that of any other author pointing out that we're probably fucked, and for this alone I would recommend it, or at least I would recommend the more approachable short stories of Pump Six.

I have a horrible feeling The Windup Girl is going to end up as a really shit film which misses all the points and has Bono singing about the environment on the soundtrack. I can almost see the trailer. This time, says the guy with the gravel voice who delivers his sentences in gobbets of two or three words as Keira Knightley's slow-motion Emiko decapitates Minister Somdet Chaopraya, they pushed her - needlessly lengthy pause, CGI droplets of blood float across screen - too far. This would of course constitute the massive irony of a novel about the corporate sterilisation of culture for profit itself turned into a means of selling hamburgers, although of course it wouldn't be the first time that sort of thing has happened.

Anyway, the point is, if you're going to read The Windup Girl, then read it now before some wanker screenplays it into The Hunger Games, although be warned, it's not a happy book and it's a bit chewy in places.

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