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  Book Reviews by James Maxey
October 2009

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup Girl is a multi-leveled science fiction creation that ties together current trends in culture, environment, economics, politics, and religion into one of the most convincing future visions ever put on paper. Set in Thailand, the plot is a mosaic that follows the adventures of several key characters as they chase their own dreams and agendas. The plot is launched by the story of Anderson Lake, a "Calorie Man." He works for one of the handful of big industrial food companies that control the world's flow of calories through careful genetic manipulation of seed stocks. He's come to Thailand searching for a rogue gene hacker and a hidden seed bank that is producing fruits and vegetables not seen for centuries. His plot thread intertwines with the story line of Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee who is Lake's personal assistant. Hock Seng has lost everything to Muslim radicals. His family has been slain, his successful shipping business ruined. He's a schemer who intends to steal and sell his employer's business secrets in order to return to wealth, power, and safety. Lake provides Hock Seng additional fodder for potential blackmail by starting an elicit relationship with Emiko, the eponymous windup girl, a genetically engineered human sex-slave created by Japanese businessmen to be beautiful and obedient. Emiko, meanwhile, wants nothing more than to escape from her bondage and run to the perhaps mythical hidden refuge of windups, where she can live freely among others of her kind. Standing in the way of her journey are the greatly feared "white shirts," Thai environmental police who will gladly throw a genetic abomination like Emiko into a mulcher if they discover her. The greatest hero of the white shirts is Jaidee, the Tiger of Bangkok, an incorruptible defender of Thailand's environmental purity, and the protagonist of his own plot thread.

Jaidee's story line, for me, was by far the most compelling. Emiko earned my pity, Hock Seng garnered a bit of sympathy, while Lake's larger goals kept me from ever rooting for him. Jaidee is the only character I could actually admire, even though he's a bit of a thug, overseeing an army of goons more interested in bribes than actually doing their jobs. But, Jaidee himself truly seems motivated only by love of his country, and stays true to his values even as the political powers of the whole world line up against him.

Stylistically, the novel is a marvel of immediacy and wonder. The streets of Bangkok come alive with sweaty, stinky, gritty detail. Bacigalupi manages to create genuine tension as the conflicting goals of the characters begin to grind up against one another -- there's no way everyone is going to get what they want. The scenes of Emiko's sexual humiliation for the delights of degenerate businessmen are especially stomach-churning and disturbing in their cold, unflinching description. My one stylistic complaint is that some editor should have slapped Bacigualupi's knuckles with a ruler every time he used the phrase "stutter-stop motion." It must appear in the book a hundred times.

My primary frustration with the Windup Girl was its utter lack of infodumps. The novel is a giant jigsaw puzzle of clues as to how the world came to be, yet the big picture never became completely clear to me. Obviously, the novel is built on the premises that: 1) the world ran out of oil, 2) global warming raised sea levels dramatically, and 3) genetic tinkering with crops has wiped out the plentiful food supply of our current world, so that now the majority of the calories that feed the world come from carefully engineered, tightly controlled crops owned by only a few large corporations. But, I kept feeling as if there were big, gaping holes in the tapestry of this future. Electricity plays no real role in the power supplies of the future Thailand. Men riding bicycles power ceiling fans in the bars. Rooms are lit by glow worms. The machinery in the factories are driven by megadonts, genetically resurrected prehistoric beasts bigger than elephants. I kept wondering, whatever happened to nuclear power? Why didn't solar work out? Is there no wind in Bangkok? No tides? And, in a world where grain is scarce and people are starving, what is feeding the herds of megadonts seen lumbering throughout the novel? I also wondered whatever happened to phones. In one scene, Lake is desperately navigating his way through the city during a police crackdown, wanting to find Hock Seng to find out what's triggered the police action. Neither man had a cell phone? I suppose that a repressive government could have outlawed these, but it would still have been nice to have these things addressed.

My gripes about things not addressed in the book are perhaps unfair. There are a nearly infinite number of things one may wonder about the future; no book could address everything. Complaining that the book doesn't address the future of cell phones is perhaps akin to complaining that it doesn't address the future of the British monarchy. I even regard it as an argument for the intellectual daring of Bacigalupi's vision that the novel caused me to ask so many questions. It can't think of another recent work of fiction that has left me actually thinking so deeply about culture and environment. The book is worth reading purely for the intellectual workout.

Servant of a Dark God by John Brown

First, a disclaimer. I know John Brown through our mutual membership in the Codex Writer's group, and a few years ago I read and critiqued an early draft of this novel. I feel I can fairly comment on it now, because the published book has changed substantially from the draft I read, and because reading a book with the goal of reviewing it is a very different thing than reading a book with the goal of critiquing it for revision. (One might also argue that reading a book with the goal of reviewing it is a very different activity than reading a book purely for the purpose of enjoying it. But, that might undermine the whole logic of my writing these reviews in the first place, so forget I mentioned it.)

With that out of the way, I will say, in utter candor, that Servant of a Dark God is a work that truly stands out from other fantasy books on the market. What makes this book work so well is that it's a story about family first, and a fantasy adventure second. Our hero is young Talen, a poor farm boy with no particularly noteworthy heroic characteristics. He's not a likely candidate to save the world at the start of this novel. Indeed, the novel starts with him squabbling with his older brother and sister over who hid his work pants, a squabble that unfolds over a full chapter before their father intervenes. From the start, there are hints of the larger world, with mentions of various hostile neighboring kingdoms, such as the "bone-faces," but the book's main focus is on Talen's small world and they complex relationships within it. Even the various farm animals have roles to play -- the behavior of the family dogs turns out to be a key clue in the developing plot, for instance.

There's a trade off here; by showing us the world through Talen's eyes, we don't get as much early on of the big, heroic action and wonder that typically drives fantasy novels. This isn't the tale of a prince raised to grapple with the problems of the world, it's the story of a farm boy raised to weed crops and take chickens to market. The novel unfolded a little slower than I would have liked. The missing pants mystery actually turns out to be an important clue to a larger, grander plot; but, of course, in the immediate act of reading, one can be forgiven for thinking that a lot of text is being spent on a problem without a lot of importance. Yet, patient readers will be rewarded; the slow, careful, methodical creation of Talen's world pays off in emotional impact when Talen learns the world-altering truths hidden behind the facade of chicken coops and cornfields. Nothing in this novel is quite what it seems.

While Talen's story is the heart of the book, don't be fooled into thinking that this isn't a fully imagined, complex fantasy world. Maybe a little too complex. The back of the book has a glossary explaining all the various political, religious, and ethnic divisions of the kingdom where the action unfolds; I promise, you will be consulting this glossary more than once. Understanding who hates who and why is important to the plot threads, both great and small. But, again, if you are patient, the complexity pays off. Talen has been raised understanding his place among these complicated cultural divisions; there is lot of drama to be wrung as his understanding is put in conflict with hidden truths.

The deeply imagined cultural divisions also serve to reflect a light on prejudice and bigotry in our own world. We are repeatedly shown fully developed characters being treated badly simply because they are members of the wrong ethnic group. Brown isn't preachy in his approach; he simply doesn't shy away from the fact that people will often be judged by the labels they are born with no matter what their other qualities.

One thing that makes this novel work is Brown's simple yet masterful prose style. He's able to pull off a complicated story of secrets and lies by telling the story with a direct, uncomplicated approach to the writing itself. Once I discovered some of the secrets of the book, I couldn't help but look back with admiration on how much Brown hides in plain sight. The flow of the story is also worth mentioning. Brown's built a long book using a lot of short chapters; I'd be reading the book at night and think, "One more chapter," and before I knew it I'd read five more.

This is the first installment of a series, but I found the book stood on its own merits. If you're looking for a good, solid, important story, plainly told, you won't go wrong buying this book.

Read more by James Maxey

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