Tag: Bacigalupi

Windup Timebomb

The dystopian future world in which Paolo Bacigalupi sets his award-winning novel Windup Girl is dazzling. It is more immersive, vibrant, and exciting than anything I’ve read since Heinlein’s “future history.” It is as rich as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and yet not jammed with story-slowing lore. The story is paced like an action movie, especially the second half, which is full of explosions and fires and chases and backstabbings just like the best blockbusters are. It twists through politics and intrigue. It examines greed, disease, bare survival, and what it means to be human.

Many diverse characters drive the story, only some of whom even know one another, and most of whom have names that are confusing to non-Asian audiences. In this regard, Bacigalupi demands a lot from his reader. However, the investment of effort pays off. Every character is deep and believable, with urgent and impure motives that accurately parallel real-world attitudes.

The real world is rarely straightforward.

Anderson Lake, whom at first I thought was the main protagonist, is inscrutable in the end: I have no idea if he was a good guy or a bad guy.

Stonewall Kanya is transformed by the time the story concludes—into what, I’m unsure, but I can tell it’s her own person.

Tan Hock Seng—the scheming, paranoid, little man who lost his whole family and financial empire in the violent overthrow of his homeland years before, and who now diligently protects his own interests, no one else’s—is my favorite, for some reason I don’t understand. He does awful things.

Emiko, the genetically engineered “windup girl” for whom the book is named, is tragic and sympathetic, even as she murders eight people in one second. That scene in particular, I really do hope to see on the silver screen someday.

The moral ambiguity in this book is striking. Some of the ethics that Bacigalupi tangles with, we are already tangling with in our real, modern world, too. The question of how to deal with refugees (political or climate refugees), is a real, terribly ambiguous question, for one. Questions about the use of technology to interfere with the natural reproductive process—“Has science gone too far?”—and of the origins of the human soul, no one is qualified to answer; but they are persistent questions nonetheless.

Of all the big questions that this book raises, the one that captivates me most is: How wrong is it to privatize a public good?

In the world of Windup Girl, rising sea levels have displaced countless people around the globe. The United States have fallen, Finland has been allowed to starve to death, and Burma is no more. Thailand is mostly underwater, and the city of Bangkok is surrounded by tall protective dikes. Increasing religious fundamentalism has driven many (like Hock Seng) away from their homes, and all nations are weakened by political factionalism. International cooperation has deteriorated almost completely in the paranoid aftermath of pandemic plagues, which geneticists designed on purpose. Monstrous, flawed, import-export economies have made all people dependent on free trade, but trade is zealously restricted, both by the white shirts and the Trade Ministry, whose interests do not even coincide. “Calorie monopolies” benefit from this fierce over-regulation, but everyone else suffers. They genetically engineer foodstuffs for sale worldwide, but they engineer them to be sterile, forbidding their customers from planting and farming, forcing them to always buy more, or else. (They are the ones who let the whole population of Finland starve, because a trade agreement couldn’t be reached with the highest levels of the Finnish government.) Anderson Lake is secretly employed by a calorie monopoly, AgriGen Industries, and he is charged with tracking down a man named Gibbons who infringed upon a number of their patents. Patent infringement, in this case, could mean any use of his skill as a geneticist in any way that might benefit anyone at all, except his heartless corporation. The bottom line is the bottom line is the bottom line, humanity be damned.

The term “patent troll” flashes across my mind. This is the derogatory term for software developers and companies who seek patents for their products, with no intention of actually furthering the field of computer technology, but only desiring to make money… waiting for someone else to just try and contribute to computer technology in some meaningful way, using a concept that’s a little similar to theirs, so they can sue ’em. These people are impediments to progress. Mustache-twirling-, coin-counting-villainous as they are, however, their malevolence can hardly compare with that of the heartless calorie monopolies, who hold whole nations hostage.

The Monsanto corporation, on the other hand, compares ominously well. Monsanto practically is a modern-day calorie monopoly. The similarities to AgriGen and PurCal, which are dark, dark figments in Bacigalupi’s dystopian vision, are frightening. To me, it is easily conceivable that, if the political climate ever afforded them the opportunity, even for a second, Monsanto would seize the right to sterilize all foodstuffs except for their own brand, as a perfectly practical measure to eliminate economic competition, and thereby subjugate farmers and consumers everywhere to their will, good or bad… and it’s bad. Monsanto is for profit, not for humanity. It’s a business.

So, to rephrase the question: What’s more important, the safety, security, and happiness of humanity, or profitable business? If you don’t answer “humanity,” then you’re either a sociopath or you don’t understand the question. It is the more difficult-to-defend of the two possible stances (being much less quantifiable than business is), yes, but it is right and good to stand for humanity. Everyone should be as happy and as healthy as is humanly possible. I take this as a given.

I am reminded of another modern-day analog for the calorie monopolies’ evil, too, besides the obvious Monsanto: privatized health care systems. I believe we all deserve state-of-the-art medical treatment (not to mention education, governmental representation, etc.). And I contend that it should be granted to us, for no other reason than that we deserve it, even if we can’t pay for it. Libertarianism and socialism are not four-letter words. They are for humanity. If they are against big businesses, so be it. Big businesses go against humanity when they grow too big, when they dominate their market, removing the consumers’ freedom to choose. They forget their place. Humanity should come first, and profit is incidental.

Windup Girl is a fantastic depiction of a worst case scenario, a scenario that might actually happen if capitalism goes unchecked without regard for ethics.  It’s a mind-blowing, excellent book.

Are We Headed Down This Road?

The Windup Girl was a little bit of a struggle to get through. The book starts and you are thrust into a world that isn’t the easiest to understand right off the bat. At first you have no concepts of when the book is taking place or what has happened that has led to the current events. It doesn’t help that the characters change from chapter to chapter. I did like that you got to know each of the important characters through their own stories and see how their social statuses effected their stories. Each character came from a different type of background, from Anderson being the rich white guy who is considered a foreign devil to Emiko who is a genetically designed new person. It’s interesting to see how the social structure plays a large role in the story. The rich still have the power to control the poor and make money off of their suffering. I think that it was also interesting to see that all of the characters were corrupt in some sort of way. By writing from several characters’ perspectives, the book is able to show the story from every perspective, rather than painting just one person as the bad guy. While reading it I found myself disliking something about almost every character.

The thing that I really did like about the book was how you got to see life after the largest horrors had passed. It was a way to see life after they were dealing with the effects of climate change. The genetically modified food, animals and people were intriguing ideas of a possible future. We are constantly trying to modify foods to meet our needs. It brings up compelling ideas monopolizing food companies controlling the world. We already see hints of that in the world today with companies like Monsanto. I think the book paints a very realistic possibility when it comes to these large money hungry companies. I think that book really shows the lengths that these companies are willing to go to make money.

Overall I wasn’t the biggest fan of this book, but I didn’t hate it. It had some interesting moments that made me really think about the future in the book is a road that the world could possibly head down

Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200

In the publishing landscape that we live in, we are being constantly barraged by Sci-Fi dystopias that are a dime a dozen. Knowing that, it’s hard to imagine a book like The Windup Girl distinguishing itself amongst its competitors. However, if there’s anything I can say about The Windup Girl, it’s certainly different.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is set in a distant futuristic Thailand, where the world has run out of Petroleum, so energy is primarily obtained by human labor. Energy has become the largest industry do to its commoditization, so the energy companies now rule the world, also having taken control of the world’s food supply. Genetically engineering the only food that’s on the market. The book follows Anderson Lake who owns one of the factories where people are made to wind massive springs in order to generate energy.  He is trying to find illegal food sources to turn a profit, and along the way he falls for a Windup Girl (people genetically engineered for a specific purpose) named Emiko. The book goes on to expose the corruption of the powers that be and to end the monopolization of food.

While I didn’t necessarily love reading the book, I do think it holds up a very poignant mirror to our present day society, just by taking it to extremes. I very much appreciated it’s commentary on corporations and monopolies and oligarchies, and why that is such a problem for any given society.  Bacigalupi knows that when one or even just a few corporations have a hold over every corner of industry, there is nothing to stop them from basically holding the people hostage for whatever goods or services they want. “You want food, well we have all the food so we can charge whatever we want.” This is happening today, the most relevant example being that of cable providers and how they fought net neutrality. Bacigalupi presented us a world where the bad guys ultimately won, as far as the beginning of the novel is concerned at least, and it could be said that in doing so, along with other writers like him, helped make people aware of the problem and contributed to working to stop it today.

That’s part of what is so interesting about this book for me. Yes, it is a Cli-Fi book, but despite its setting, and its ending, I primarily see it as a book warning of the dangers of lack of corporate oversight. The Global Warming aspect is there, but I find it to be slightly inconsequential as far as the rest of the book is concerned, especially as compared to the other works we’ve read. Even though I personally didn’t love reading the book, I definitely recommend it. It has a lot of great ideas, and is incredibly relevant to what’s happening today.

The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl definitely takes a bit of getting into before the action starts to pick up and stories begin to unravel, but reading it is well worth the effort. There are two things that really struck me while reading this novel: How important the changing perspectives is to advance the plot and keep the reader engaged, and how raw the representation of prostitution and pimping is depicted.

Every chapter allows the reader to be exposed to a different character’s perspective. Of course it was a bit confusing at first to get used to being dropped into changing situations ever chapter, but it reminded me of the movie Crash. These characters were seemingly irrelevant to each other, leading their own lives and dealing with their separate problems. But gradually as the story unfolded, the reader could see how their lives overlapped and influenced each other. I thought this was interesting when it was first revealed how Anderson’s and Emiko’s lives had to do with each other. It was especially pleasant to be given little details here and there from one character that regarded another character; it was like filling in the empty spots of a jigsaw puzzle. Admittedly, it was still a bit difficult to keep up with the heavy plot lines at times especially because of the new terminology: Calorie men, white shirts, blister rust, genehacking. Surprisingly, understanding and visualizing most of the qualities of Emiko as a windup girl wasn’t that hard. The only thing I would point out is that a visual on-screen interpretation would be extremely helpful in understanding her mechanical ticks.

Emiko’s story line was by far the most interesting to me. Her life as an exotic performer/prostitute was shown in such a realistic and unapologetic manner that I had no choice but to respect the author for his bravery. I feel as though most artists would be cautious to portray the work and lives of prostitutes for what they are for fear of making the viewer uncomfortable and even guilty. Movies like Pretty Woman depict unrealistic portrayals of the dangerous night work of prostitutes. Its illustration, according to one Newsweek article, suggests to young children that prostitution is a viable career choice that may even bring enjoyment (Burleigh). This is certainly not a message that should be given to anybody. Prostitution is not a choice, it is sex slavery, which is clearly shown through Emiko’s experiences very early on in the novel. Her “performance” (which is quite clearly rape) on stage is humiliating and degrading on many levels. She endures the sexual assault and emotional trauma because she physically has no other choice as she was genetically engineered to please her companions and she economically has no other choice because she is in serious debt to her owner, Raleigh. As if her rape isn’t enough for the reader to cringe, Raleigh very clearly shuts down Emiko’s wishes to leave the establishment by essentially telling her how worthless and undesired she is outside of Japan. This treatment is incredibly harsh and even heartbreaking, but the rawness of the depiction is exactly what people need to see and be exposed to. Prostitution is in no way a pleasant experience and people should not be led to believe anything other than its abusive and traumatizing qualities. I applaud Bacigalupi’s talent and bravery in shining a light on the very serious topic, even if it’s not the main issue being depicted in the story.

 

Burleigh, Nina. “Sex Trafficking and the ‘Pretty Woman’ Fairy Tale.” Newsweek, 23 Mar. 2015. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.

The Windup Girl

In a world where energy companies rule the world, which is not hard at all to imagine, Anderson Lake works as a calorie-man in pursuit of the seedbank that has seeds for new types of foods that he hopes to profit off in a highly corrupt society. In Bacigalupi’s bleak, dystopian world where calories and energy are at the profit centers, fossil fuels are no longer used and the most successful companies produce large springs that supply the world’s energy. The corruption is a disease that has spread from business to government and all the way down. We follow a diverse cast of characters as we watch Bangkok fall into civil war and eventually drown as the levees are destroyed in a time when climate change has impacted the sea levels. This book is interesting from beginning to end as we watch the tone go from miserable to depressing to somehow unbelievably hopeful.

 

I found The Windup Girl to be the most intriguing book we have read as a class so far. Strictly going off of the story, I found it to be an incredibly captivating book that was able to effectively weave a number of stories and characters together into one overarching plot. As a person with a very short attention span and who has only recently, like within the last 5 years, fallen in love with books and reading, I am somewhat new to science fiction. For the most part, I am the kind of reader who has trouble focusing on the overall story and getting immersed in a book when the characters have names that do not exactly stay in my mind. At first I found characters’ names like Akkarat and Hock Seng to be difficult to remember. I had to make a conscious effort to either try to commit these names to memory or write them down when I first see them. However, I simply cannot critique this book based on my own limited comfort zone of what proper names should be no matter how confusing or hard to remember they might be.

 

In my limited experience with science fiction novels, I have learned that one must enter into the story with the understanding that names, places, events, etc. may not register in your mental Rolodex. The winding and weaving style of storytelling also had me a bit lost in the beginning. I read the first few chapters thinking that the book would simply follow Anderson Lake as the protagonist and that would be that. This threw me off at first, but I found by chapter 10 the confusing names and weaving plot line started to become more of a positive aspect to the book because it added a certain unfamiliar mood that I think must be established in science fiction. I believe that an aura of the unknown must be present for your imagination to fill in the gaps in the societal differences. For instance, I suppose it would be harder to get your imagination rolling on a futuristic book when as a reader you simply follow along a character with a recognizable name living in a recognizable city working for companies we have all heard of.

 

With this being said, I found whatever issues I had with the book easy to get passed. The more thought I put into the world that Bacigalupi created, the more it started to take form in my mind, and, for me, the book really took off from there. The author created a work that encompassed basically everything from politics, friendships, relationships, sexual slavery, to climate change. While it was a difficult read at first, I am definitely glad that I persisted through and finished the book. I think the true sign of an effective piece of literature is that it makes you think during and after the read. The Windup Girl does just that.

 

 

Nature and Capitalism in the 23rd Century

It is tempting to read Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl as a story of GMOs gone wild. GMOs themselves are not so much the issue, however, as it is the ethics and philosophy behind their use that cause disaster. In Bacigalupi’s 23th Century Thailand, GMO food is an accepted, necessary part of the nation’s food supply. The problem is not that these foods are unhealthy, but that the actual companies that produce these GMO crops also produce plagues to wipe out their competitors’ products while showing little or no regard to how many people consequentially starve. These companies essentially cause the necessity of GMOs, as new crops are needed to replace those wiped out by plagues, and so Bacigalupi’s concern throughout The Windup Girl is the power that these bioengineering companies have, especially because of how they exploit global vulnerabilities created by climate change and the continued dominance of a capitalist global economic system.

In exploring this issue, Bacigalupi runs into more existential questions about bioengineering: what divides human civilization (i.e. our GMOs) from nature? Gibbons, the premier genesplicer in Bacigalupi’s world, posits that there is no difference: “We are nature. Our every tinkering is nature, our every biological striving. We are what we are, and the world is ours. We are its gods.” (Bacigalupi 243). While, as Aarthi Vadde notes, there is something “Machiavellian” about characters like Gibbons and his obsession with godhood, the premise that bioengineered, artificial evolution is an extension of nature may not be as radical as it seems. Scientists today arguing in favor of GMOs note that genetic manipulation is merely the advancement of techniques that we have already used for millennia: “according to [Dr. Steven] Novella, humans have been using selective breeding to create more desirable versions of plants and animals for thousands of years. In fact, it was a lone monk, Gregor Mendel, who in the 1800s discovered the laws of inheritance and launched the science of genetics by crossbreeding pea plants.” (Indre Viskontas, “No, GMOs Won’t Harm Your Health”). Still, no matter how ancient this assessment of nature’s boundaries may be, there are some dire implications to such a notion in the 23rd Century. The most damning of these implications is that if our GMOs are as disposable as the nature we create them from, (as indeed anthropocenic climate change asserts this disposability), then so too are the most ethically problematic GMOs imaginable: the New People.

Emiko, the titular windup girl, embodies the contradictions that this extended definition of nature entails. Emiko is conflicted between her instinctual inclinations for subservience, her strict obedience training, and her desire to be a free person. This desire, although it may deviate from other New People, (it is never confirmed if the village of free New People that Emiko dreams of is real), suggests that however artificial her origins are, she is of emotionally developed. We know that Emiko feels hope: “There is a place for windups. The knowledge tingles within her. A reason to live.” (Bacigalupi 101). We know that she feels pain and anger. Simply the fact that she feels conflicted demonstrates that despite the shackles of genetic programming she was created with, she is capable of experiencing different emotions. This is in turn should be evidence enough of her humanity, but Bacigalupi’s GMO humans experience an oppression that is much older than the technology that creates them.

Windups or New People are subjugated to slavery, and much like European colonial slavery of the past, this new generation of enslaved people is necessarily dehumanized. 23rd Century Thailand uses a Buddhist ideology to assume that New People like Emiko do not have souls, their justification being that New People are created rather than born. This definition of the soul, however, conflicts with the idea that New People are an extension of nature, and does not consider their capability of self-agency. This is because their inclination to follow their instinctual programming hides their agency. When Emiko does contradict these inclinations, while also expressing genuine emotion, she proves her agency resolutely effectively defies this dehumanization.

For these reasons, Emiko’s remarkable humanity is in an odd way, a kind of praise for GMOs, despite the manipulability and other negative traits that she is created with. Emiko is direct evidence for Gibbons’ definition of nature: she both is artificial in origin, yet natural in her humanity. Still, to treat her entirely as a positive portrayal of GMOs is both negligent and overly optimistic, as the cruel and oppressive flaws she is designed with once more remind us of the dangers that a bioengineering-centric view of nature poses. Creating GMO humans may not be such a bad thing if they are used primarily to continue the survival of the human race, (assuming that we count them as members of our kind), like Gibbons more or less hopes: “We should all be windups now. It’s easier to build a person impervious to blister rust than to protect an earlier version of the human creature.” (Bacigalupi 243). Creating GMO human slaves; however, as is the case with the New People, can only be seen as exploitative and sadistic; it relies upon a dehumanization of New People that Emiko’s character so resiliently contradicts.

That the calorie companies in Bacigalupi’s vision of the future can bioengineer both slaves and devastating crop diseases means that we need to be cautious about who has the power to tinker with GMOs and what the limits of GMO production should be. If we are to continue pursuing new GMO technology and crops, then we need powerful regulation, not just the kind we already follow to make GMOs safely palatable, but also the kind that carefully enforces humane ethics as well. Bacigalupi teaches us this and also warns us that as long as nature and civilization progressively meld together, there is much peril if a profit driven elite remains at the center of this fusion.

 

Works Cited:

Viskontas, Indre. “No, GMOs Won’t Harm Your Health.” Mother Jones. N.p., 14 Feb. 2014. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.

Vadde, Aarthi. “Megalopolis Now.” Public Books. N.p., 6 Aug. 2013. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.

The Windup Girl: Still Processing…

As of now, The Windup Girl is, in my opinion, the most difficult book we’ve read in this class. That’s including taking in all of the politics and science that make up Forty Signs of Rain. Not only is the the world completely different in the book, but all of the technology and the characters all seem to mush together to make up the story. This left me feeling kind of uneasy about this novel, but part of me thinks that I would’ve enjoyed it more if I had more time to read it and really understand it.

The biggest obstacle I had was actually reading through the first hundred pages or so. I had a ridiculously difficult time trying to picture and understand the world that Paolo Bacigalupi created to set his story in. It’s highly technologic, yet it also seems like a lot of the technology has also devolved. It’s a really interesting kind of science fiction, but we’re just thrown right into the story without anytime to really figure out what kind of setting we’re stepping into.

So, while I think Bacigalupi’s approach to the story in The Windup Girl could have been done better, it’s still a really interesting and intriguing story full of everything you could want with a novel. There’s betrayals, unlikely friendship, violence, and loads of imagination. I said before that I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if I had more time to read it and that’s what’s been really preying on my mind. There’s so much corporate and military intrigue taking place in a world I don’t quite understand, but would like to fully appreciate.

The Windup Girl is definitely not an easy book, but the themes, characters, and science mixed with the imagination make it one to be remembered… and possibly even baffled by.

The Windup Girl: New kind of world, same old problems

The Windup Girl is a wonderfully imagined, impeccably detailed dystopia in which food is monopolized by companies for profit, to the detriment of the people and the Earth. Earth has lost its petroleum, so the people get their energy from massive springs wound by people in factories. Anderson Lake owns one of these factories in Thailand, but also secretly works for a “calorie company,” companies that genetically engineer food, corrupting its DNA. He is in search of illegal seedbanks containing new foods untouched by the corruption of the companies, and hopes to profit from them. He falls for Emiko, a “New Person,” or a person that has been genetically engineered for a specific purpose (hers is prostitution). The corruption of the calorie companies spreads throughout Thailand, the world, and in particular the government and the law enforcement. As Anderson fights for the seedbank, corruption is exposed, power struggles occur, and in the end, Bangkok is flooded.

A similarity I’ve noticed between many cli-fi novels is the focus on class and inequalities as a major theme, but in wildly different ways.  In Flight Behavior, the under-educated people of Dellarobia’s town are less able to impact climate change than their wealthier counterparts. In Parable of the Sower, Lauren’s family is able to wall off their home from the terrifying outside world due to their wealth. In this novel, the rich control the food supply, so they control everything. The poor starve, while the rich eat all they want and profit from the hunger of those of lesser status. In fact, in this society, girth becomes a symbol for wealth, as only those with a good bit of money can afford to be fat. When Hock Seng meets The Dung Lord, he immediately notices his size and identifies him as a wealthy man. Also, when tragedy strikes, it seems as though only the poor suffer, while the wealthy can ignore the problems. Hock Seng, Emiko, and Kanya all have to deal with the violence occurring during the revolts, but Akkarat, Anderson, and Carlyle all continue to worry about profit.

While I enjoyed the world that this novel creates so vividly, I despised many of the characters, particularly Anderson Lake. The universe that is set up is completely different from our own, yet still feels very plausible. The intricate system of corruption that arises from the food supply tragedy is extremely interesting, and also very believable. However, the characters that inhabit this world are mean and amoral to the point of being unpleasant to read about. While Anderson does have some redeeming qualities, such as his affection for Emiko, his overall character, as well as those of the other rich and powerful characters, is despicable. It was particularly hard to read those scenes in which the rich characters go back to discussing money and profits while the poor are fighting for their lives and suffering just outside their bubble of privilege.

Overall, I enjoyed the ideas that this novel explored, as well as its world building, but its characters were too amoral for me to connect to the text. It is well worth the read for the universe created in it, however. I imagined the novel as a kind of alternate ending to Interstellar, where the characters are not successful in moving away from Earth, and the food supply crashes as it threatens to do in the film. For the good aspects of the book, I would highly recommend it.

The Windup Girl Made Me a Confused, Sad Girl

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First of all, I would like to start off this review by saying this book was almost impossible to follow. Even after finishing, I went on Wikipedia to read a plot synopsis and STILL had no idea what went on. There were way too many characters with really difficult names that were too odd for me to remember from chapter to chapter; one of the only reasons I remembered Emiko’s name is because it kind of looks like “Emily”. With that in mind, here is what I gathered from reading Paolo Bacigalupi’s, The Windup Girl:

The second I opened the book, I knew I was going to be thankful that I was only writing a short review on it. I remember thinking, “why? Why me? There are fifty thousand characters and this book is so long. What monster does this?” All sarcastic remarks aside, my favorite part of the book was the end…NOT IN A SARCASTIC WAY. I like that Bacigalupi ended the book on a hopeful note with Gibbons telling Emiko that he can use her DNA to produce a species of people that will be just like her that she can live with, something she’s wanted for a very long time. I feel like a lot of the books we’ve read haven’t ended so happily, so this ending is one I can appreciate. I feel bad that I didn’t enjoy the rest of the book as much as I had anticipated I would. I suppose I did enjoy how developed all the characters were even though there were so many of them. With that many stories to keep track of, Bacigalupi did an incredible job of not slacking on any of the characters. Ten points for Bacigalupi.