Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sex, Death, and the End of the World: Thoughts on The Windup Girl

There has been a lot of ink spilled (real and virtually) about Paulo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl. A few months back, I decided to see what all the fuss was about and ordered a copy.

This was a dense book, the type you don't see mass marketed very often, in large part because it throws you right into the story and expects you to catch up. There's no popcorn here along the way. No, "As you know, Bob," just "Here's what I'm doing, ha ha figure it out."

I pushed through the first twenty or so pages thinking I was going to end up putting it back down again. The characters aren't particularly likable. There's really nobody to root for. Toward the end of the book, I realized I wasn't terribly invested in who "won" or died.

That said, the characters are interesting, and that makes all the difference. Exiles and outcasts, expatriates and profiteers... they're all here. Bacigalupi is a great evocateur of worlds, and he captures the heat and stink and chaos of this future Bangkok with great force. This is a book that's very much about the world, the re-emergence of colonization after a spectacular collapse, civil war, and above all, exploration of the world after the terrible repercussions from too much genetic meddling with our food stuffs and our environment.

The host of characters include a scheming expatriate employed by a "Calorie Company" - big ConAgra-like companies that literally control every edible thing that comes on the market. The entire economy is based on calories - fossil fuels have been used up, and energy is measured in literal human calories. Genetically modified animals and people help pick up where fossil fuels let off, but it's been a long climb back into industry.

Part of what seems to have made this book so popular - besides the fact that it's well-written, evocative, and engaging - is that so much of it is so here-and-now newsworthy, which people love. I felt the same thing when I read his take on how big-business-controlled seeds had aided in toppling the world. I'd just finished watching a smattering of documentaries about the monopoly on corn seed and fertilizer of some big companies today, how farmers weren't even allowed to harvest their own corn for planting, because the seeds themselves are patented. Yes, the seeds are patented. They are owned by a corporation.

In the Windup Girl, we get an answer to the question, "What happens when all the seeds are patented, and then there's a blight, and no alternatives around anymore?" We also get an answer to the "What happens if we continue on like we are and the oil runs out" question, too. These are both big concerns. Science fiction has never really been about the future so much as it is about exploring answers to today's questions and concerns. We write our future fiction (and our fantasy fiction) in reaction to what we're experiencing now. The Windup Girl is right there at the forefront.

Big stuff aside, I did want to take a minute to share some thoughts on The Windup Girl herself (the blog's titled Brutal Women, afterall). The whole Asian sex slave robot/genetically tailored pleasure girl slave thing has been done to death. The minute she comes on the scene I was like, "Tra-la, whatever."

But Bacigalupi makes some very interesting choices, here. Though she is created by and owned by men, it's a woman who is her primary on-stage abuser, and the person you hear spewing the most hate at her. As a Windup Girl, she's outcast, hated, feared, and can't walk outside alone without fear of being recycled. Not only that - her flawless skin means she has pores so small that she doesn't regulate heat properly. This is a big problem in sweltering Bangkok at the end of the fossil fuel age, when things like ice and air conditioning are for the super rich... and she's an rich guy's abandoned companion who's been taken up into a petty brothel. That means she's utterly, completely dependent on others. Physically, and genetically. Because she's been bred to be submissive, dependent, with an overwhelming desire to please.

What makes her different that other robo-women? She knows exactly what she's been bred for. She has a painful knowledge of her dependence, even as submitting to her masters' desires fulfills her dog-like need to please, she hates herself for it. She knows it for what it is: bad programming.

And she fights it.

How many times have you done something for somebody that was against your principles? How many times have you done something you were uncomfortable with, or that you didn't really like, but that made somebody else happy? And then afterward you were like, gah, why did I do that?

That's her whole life. It's knowing what free will's like, but never having it.

All that said, she does work hard at rebellion, and in the best of all girl-power stories, she does in fact get weaponized... and the whole place goes to hell. She has been slowly battering against the cage of her genetics for some time, so when she bursts out, it's pretty spectacular, and unpredictably violent (after yesterday's post about women getting weaponized in response to sexual violence, I should have found this more predictable, but the way Bacigalupi sets it up, it's actually not. It felt like an interesting instead of a predictable choice).

everybody's getting stepped on by everybody else.

Overall, this was a good read. If you can get through those first few initial pages without going, "Fuck this, I don't know what the hell is going on!" you'll be fine.  Things pick up. Things make sense. Sometimes they make too much sense. And you start to wonder just how fun the world is going to be in 50 years unless we get some electric cars and high-speed trains and stop corporations from controlling the genetic makeup of our foodstuffs.

Which, of course, is exactly what a good SF novel should be doing... freaking me out about the future.

4 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

David Batista said...

It's funny, I just finished reading this novel last month and had the same initial reaction as yourself to the first couple of chapters. The beginning is so dense and bewildering that I, too, thought I might have to put the book away. But sure enough, everything starts getting really interesting just shortly after that.

I thought the chapters with the actual Windup Girl would end up dragging. I so didn't want to read about another sex slave/robot. But suddenly (and way before her eventual weaponization), the character became far more multi-layered and interesting than I had anticipated.

Because of all the other shenanigans going on in the story (the Calorie Man; the Tiger of Bangkok; Yellow Card man; etc), I actually forgot the title of the book was "The Windup Girl." Only as you progress deeper into the plot does it slowly become apparent how central she really is to the whole shebang.

This was an awesome read for me. I've read Paolo's short stories before this, but he's now cemented me as a dedicated reader.

David Moles said...

Have to admit it's pretty much the title character that's kept me from picking this up -- I keep thinking, do we really need another cyborg sex slave story? Do we really need another misogynistic softcore scenario in which the female lead gets repeatedly raped, enjoys being raped, hates herself for enjoying it?

That may be an unfair characterization, but it's how Emiko's story comes across in the reviews and excerpts I've seen. That she eventually gets violent revenge doesn't so much seem to justify it as allow the male writer -- sorry, Paolo! -- to have his cake and eat it. (Have the feminism, eat the misogynistic porn... not the best metaphor, I admit.)

So I'd love to hear that that's not how it works out in practice, but I'm not convinced yet.

(Oh, and while we're at it, does she have to be Japanese?)

Jackie M. said...

So, not-totally-unrelated, I was reading this piece on the female Libyan bodyguards, and how fetishizing women with guns isn't necessarily feminist?


Kameron Hurley said...

@David M. The Japanese thing actually bothered me more than the sex-slave thing, especially because she ends up with a Westerner. Not that anybody treats her well throughout. Forgot to mention this.

In this case, I'm not willing to throw out the whole book because of the cyborg slave, in part because what we see is her struggle with it. It goes back to the UF thing. I hate seeing women raped in fantasy. It gets old. At the same time, there's a part of me that does appreciate watching someone fight their way from dependency to independence (personal experience, and all that). Is it something I want to write? No. And there are better, less cliched ways to tell that same story.

The deal with featuring a sex slave is that she can't be your ONLY female character. If she'd been the only female character in the book, I don't think I could have made an exception to continued reading, despite the cool premise.

@Jackie Fetishization isn't feminist, no. Cause it isn't a stand-in for equality... That happens a LOT, not just in Western views of Muslim women, but Western views of women - it's the dominatrix thing. It's one reason that the UF books bother me sometimes, too. "Yeah, I kick ass! But I sure do wish I was skinny and had a boyfriend!"

You can give somebody the symbols of power, but it doesn't give them power. And anyway, that doesn't even touch the whole, "How positive is it for us to weaponize women AND men" thing either. It sure beats being a victim, but it's a path that could very easily lead you to becoming an abuser (like the woman in the book who abuses Emiko).