Pete Young (peteyoung) wrote,
Pete Young

2010 books

44) Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl, 2009
This is offered less as a review and more as a set of notes and commentary, which I may also add to later. I planned to read both this and Robert Charles Wilson's Julian Comstock before last weekend's Aussiecon but, family life being what it is, I got too far behind and I only finished The Windup Girl a couple of days after the Hugo Awards. Needless to say I was pleased that it shared the 'Best Novel' with my favourite novel of last year (Miéville's The City & The City), not only because it is a very strong novel and worthy winner but also because it's rare to see my adopted country featured so prominently in western SF, and award-winning SF at that – The Windup Girl has grabbed the Nebula, the Compton Crook Award and now the Hugo (and was also one of Time magazine's Notable Books of the Year), while China's novel has bagged the BSFA, the Clarke and now also the Hugo.

  • The future setting:  In The Windup Girl Thailand in the 23rd century is one of the few successful countries in a world in which so many have succumbed to poverty since the Contraction, the massive scaling down of the world's economy that began with the scarcity of oil, and its success is put down to its independence and bloody-minded refusal to give in to external economic forces that pressure its borders, in much the same way that Bangkok is shored up against the rising waters of the Gulf of Thailand by huge levées that keep the city from drowning. Thailand is resisting any dependence on genetically engineered food created by the same Western conglomerates that have plagued the rest of the world with biological nightmares and botanical disasters, but a series of unconnected events are threatening to compromise that stubborn independence. What shouts louder than most of the themes of The Windup Girl are the socio-economic pressures that influence everything in this future time, filtering all the way down from the large corporations to the fruit sellers and rickshaw drivers of Bangkok's streets.

  • Look! Zeppelins!  'Biopunk' is not exactly a new portmanteau on the block, but I expect that given time The Windup Girl will eventually be properly separated from that misnomer 'steampunk' – unfortunately I've both seen and heard the novel described as such, and this novel doesn't even come close. Yes, it's a future that necessarily has zeppelins but it neither comes across as a box-ticking exercise on Bacigalupi's part nor an indulgence in a current SFnal obsession. The biological and botanical aspects are far more prominent in respect to the final shape of the novel (and its proper categorisation) than merely a cool method of transport that only appears occasionally.

  • The politics:  The Windup Girl doesn't present a complete picture of the politics of the time (nor does it have to), but I felt there were some omissions. There are conflicting Ministries shaking Bangkok apart but with little or no controlling hand of a Prime Minister of whatever political stripe, although reference is occasionally made to a 'December 12 incident' which weakened the political foundations of the nation. The Thai Royal Family is still the focus of allegiance in Thai society, figureheaded in the form of a young Queen, and the biggest problem for me of the entire book was how Bacigalupi enables Akkarat, the powerful head of the Trade Ministry, to be able to simply commandeer the Thai military to slap down another Ministry in a very warlike fashion. It's not even a proper civil war, it's a governmental war. Whilst it's true that, even today, there are factions within the military that are a little more vocal with their political affiliations than they strictly ought to be, I felt that with everyone falling over themselves to prove their loyalty to the Queen, it didn't ring true that the Thai military were freely available for the use of whichever government Ministry was in the ascendancy, and particularly for use against another arm of government. With loyalty to their Royal head of state and not the government or any arm of it, I strongly doubt that the military would allow itself to be used in such as partisan way, even given the mistaken reason for which it was done. But I'll give Bacigalupi the benefit of the doubt here as I'm curious if there is an actual precedent in Thailand's political history that has seen ideologically-opposed factions of government battling it out on the capital's streets. Given that this is Thailand, I would not say it's out of the question.

  • Naming and title conventions:  The liaison between the 23rd century Thai Royal Family and the outside world is conducted by the Queen's protector, a powerful character titled the Somdet Chaopraya. This was a good choice of title. 'Somdej' (with a 'j') today is usually reserved as a title for royalty beneath the rank of King or Queen, but it is also a title that can be applied to buildings with royal connections, such as a hospital, hence carrying the meaning 'by royal appointment'. 'Chao Phraya' is more commonly understood as the modern name of the major river that runs through Bangkok, however the two terms brought together in the form of 'Somdej Chao Phraya' have a much older significance as a now-obsolete title in feudal Thai society, meaning 'Grand Duke'. It was awarded to male commoners only under extraordinary circumstances and only to those with great achievements. There is also a Somdet Chaopraya Road in present day Bangkok, but let's not allow that to confuse matters.

  • 23rd century folklore:  Chapter 24 mentions three real people important to 23rd century Thai folklore: the Ven. Ajahn Chanh ('ajahn' means 'teacher'), a Buddhist monk and teacher of meditation; the writer Chart Korbjitti, who I've been reading, and Seub Nakhasathien, a Thai environmentalist who took his own life in 1990 after his failure to protect a wildlife sanctuary from logging and dam construction.

  • Are the Thai characters recognisably Thai?  The Thailand of The Windup Girl sometimes felt like Thailand in name and location only: it could be a less-than-wholesome Singapore, or even a believably gritty Hong Kong. Half-way through I had begun to feel that Bacigalupi had lost his feel for the Thai people and how Thais conduct themselves on the everyday level: the Thais in the novel might not be recognisably Thai in the present day, they could in fact be from almost any South East Asian nation. While they've retained their deference and politeness it seems everyone has lost most of their capacity for happiness which, culturally speaking, is actually seen as an important strand in the present-day national character, this being the Land of Smiles. But this is a different Thailand in the 23rd Century, one that (perhaps a little belatedly, in Chapter 30) Bacigalupi acknowledges may be unrecognisable:
    Jaidee always insisted that the Kingdom was a happy country, that old story about the Land of Smiles. But Kanya cannot think of a time when she has seen smiles as wide as those in museum photos from before the Contraction. She sometimes wonders if those people in the photos were acting, if perhaps the National Gallery is intending to depress her, or if it is really true that at one point people smiled so totally, so fearlessly.
    This is a small paragraph but it's actually a rather necessary one, the like of which I felt the book could not really have done without. It also holds up a mirror of sorts to the lives of just about all the characters in The Windup Girl: they all have those wrenching moments in which the future that they planned for is supplanted by something considerably less promising, even something that they feared. Thais are an optimistic people and usually retain that optimism even in the face of dire poverty, so, given that the Thailand of The Windup Girl is a successful country on its own terms where others have failed badly, I'd say that given the shape the world is in Bacigalupi has extrapolated a possible future for the Thai national character rather well – they have had to pay a high price in everyday happiness, but the rest of the world has generally fared much worse.
  • Tags: 2010 books, paolo bacigalupi, science fiction, thailand

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