Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Windup Girl" (You're Fired)

I want my money back.  I want my time back.*  I want to know why this was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo, and I want to know what kind of mushroom and/or acid binge the judges clearly took that led to it winning both.

The premise was an appealing one, and a reco by Cory Doctorow (author of some appeal for me, and primary contributor to BoingBoing, where the initial reco was posted), led me to pick this up on the road when I saw it at a fantastic Chicago used/new bookstore just off Michigan Ave that's now become a must-visit when in town, despite the letdown of this purchase.  In short, the book is a post-post global collapse after peak oil and genetically modified foods have finally saddled the world with a host of novel diseases that make food even more scarce and precious than it is today.  The protagonist (of sorts) is a ‘Calorie Man’, working for a food concern that’s hoping to find a new and lucrative way out of this whole mess.  Yes, food is so scarce they measure power in jules and calories.  This is a creative idea, but not altogether new.

As far as world building goes (an essential for any such work), Bacigalupi does a decent job in broad strokes only, when it comes to painting this post-post collapse.  Animal power and tension coils provide power.  Wind and dirigible make long distance travel impractical.  Global trade and cross-pollination are ‘shrunk.’  It’s an interesting basis for a story taking place in South-East Asia, but clumsily executed and embarrassing to contradictory in its detail.

I’d rather not catalog all the issues and inconsistencies in this book here, as I’ve spent enough time on it already, but I will note the following list of additional grievances.

The characters are wooden and implausible in their motivations much of the time.  The science, while seldom a sticking point for me in reading what is clearly science fiction, is just sloppy and nonsensical to even the non-specialist stickler reader.  The ‘windup girl’ is a gene-hacked demi-human of sorts, who inexplicably exists common enough to be reviled by the masses who recognize her kind in the street while seeming uncommon and rare enough to seem priceless to the powerful.  This doesn’t quite capture the disjunction the author creates, and I wont bore you with the detail.  Suffice to say, this central plot point is completely beyond the ability of basic logic to reconcile.  The plot is full of this disjuncture, and it’s insulting to the careful reader.

It’s a big idea, or rather, a big set of ideas.  Not original but distinctive enough for me to wish it had been given a better, even honest effort.  I’ll give the author full credit for the handful of themes collected here, but a better writer would have taken more time to polish his flow, consistency, science and characters.

I actually went to Amazon after reading this (on the road for work travel) to see if I was just too surly and scatter-brained at the time, and to see if I was alone in the reaction.  (Yes, I find Amazon reviews a good validation after the fact, when the mood strikes).  While well reviewed by many (!), the naysayers pretty much hit on all the complaints I had myself.  I’ve always maintained that the saving grace of much science and speculative fiction is the ‘big idea’, and that this alone can counter balance mediocre writing or storytelling (see Kurt Vonnegut for many examples – and I love Vonnegut).  Still, it’s a balance, and Bacigalupi strikes a poor one.  Harry Potter has rightly been criticized for Rowling’s use of ‘plot spackle’ to write her way out of a hole (and I loved her books too), but Bacigalupi doesn’t even bother with the spackle.  Lazy.

The author.
* Once I start, I feel obliged to finish, hoping the text will redeem itself.  If I put something down, it’s usually because I can’t give it the attention I feel it deserves at the time.

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