05 April 2011

Green Future: Belated Review of Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl came out in 2009 and won both the Hugo and the Nebula.

It is compared to William Gibson's work by critics in that it is grimy, noir-ish, and set in a near-future focused on a single type of technology - in this case, on "green" technology in a world that has passed through the nightmare side of global warming and the resultant economic collapse.

On the far side of this disaster (not so far away), Bacigalupi posits a world in which green technology is dominant - the combustion engine is replaced by wound-spring drives, genetic crop and animal engineering has made food companies the rulers of the nascent reemerging global economy, and anything that produces greenhouse gases is carefully circumscribed by law - including, apparently, anything remotely resembling the internet.

This means that manual and animal labor is back in style while green power generation catches up, which gives the whole book the cant of a story set in the industrial revolution, with very strong themes concerning class, racism, and wealth that are supplanted in the end by a transhumanist message: that humanity itself is probably broken, but that the windups - the genetically engineered versions of our own species rabidly hated in the book - are a possible means of salvation. This really means that the reader's exploration of this new industrial world is all for the sake of a tired conclusion with flaws already mentioned better elsewhere. But before I reach that conclusion -

Overall, I thought the book contained a welcome cynical look at the sustainability movement. Anyone who thinks that sustainability will not mean a certain level of sacrifice should read this book for a great vision of a world where this was not realized until too late. It also does a great job of imagining the geopolitics, people, and places of its world, although it gets a poorer grade for the technology. The tech is great for the most part, but it is difficult to imagine that the world would ever completely lose the internet, especially in an era bent on energy efficiency - so much of that is to be gained through networked communication and computing. Also noticeably absent from the plot is any mention of improving your basic human through medicinal, surgical, or any other means. I find it hard to believe that in a future where improved humans can be genetically engineered, science does not also understand how to improve the average human as well.

To get back to what I was coming to conclude before, it shows that The Windup Girl is a book bent on its transhumanist message - to the point where the worldbuilding and the storytelling ultimately suffers, if only a little. It was a fantastic read plot-wise (I won't reveal even one jot more of it than I have already given away here, which is precious little, actually), and I highly recommend it for anyone looking to see where the good SF might go in the next few years. The future is mostly plausible, nearby, and finely tuned between dystopia and utopia. Just don't expect its ultimate conclusion to provide anything new.

It is the getting there that counts, in this case.

No comments: