Saturday, 31 December 2016

THE WINDUP GIRL by Paolo Bacigalupi

I feel like almost every scifi novel can be summarised: “Great premise, but the plot struggled”. I wonder why this is? It’s almost as if all the energy of the author goes into the monumental effort of creating a world, and none is left over for characters or plot.

The premise here is really fun. It’s Bangkok, after what is called the ‘Contraction’ a period that comes after our own, which is apparently known as the ‘Expansion.’ In this world, sea level rises have wiped out most major cities, and fossil fuels are rare and strictly forbidden. Genetic engineering is everywhere, creating ‘megadonts’ – huge elephants, who turn wheels to make factories run while there is no more electricity, but more importantly, also holding a total stranglehold on food production. The ‘Calorie men’ are all powerful, coming from companies with fantastic names such as Midwest Compact and AgriGen. People die of ‘generipped’ plagues left and right, with wonderful names such ‘cibiscosis 118. A’.

The plot is less fun, being some mish-mash of typical movie scenes, and going on for rather too long. It’s also amazingly old fashioned in regards to gender. The wind-up girl of the title is a very advanced cyborg, bred to obey. She was designed as a secretary in Japan, but has ended up abandoned by her owner in Thailand and being a prostitute. Boringly, because of her genetic programming, she orgasms no matter what, including during rape scenes. And rape scenes there are, written with poorly masked enjoyment.

2 comments:

  1. I think I liked this better than you did.

    The plot has at least one too many complications - a lot of the palace intrigue stuff seemed like treading water - and the titular "girl"'s humiliations were, as you say, described in some unnecessary detail.

    I'm willing to forgive quite a bit, however, because of the originality of the setting and premise: a non-cyberpunk, non-nuclear-wasteland, non-fascist-run dystopia. (I thought it was dystopic when I read it a couple years ago, but now it seems almost hopeful, in that humanity survives, more or less, and is in the process of rebuilding with different technology.)

    My off-the-cuff answer to your question: why so many sci-fi books can be described as “Great premise, but the plot struggled” is that the text has to do double duty serving both exposition and story. Bad sci-fi can drop big swaths of narrative-halting exposition - indeed of the two most popular sci-fi franchises ever, one opens with a narrative crawl to introduce the premise, and the other voice-over during the credits. Introducing a unfamiliar premise organically is tricky, and creating a compelling plot on top of that, trickier still.

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  2. I think that's a fair point - I was just thinking yesterday actually that I was surprised by how much it has stuck with me - not the plot (never the plot) but the world. It is true it's one of the few sci-fi books I've read that has a kind of believable future of our actual concerns today - climate change etc! It often happens that I'm surprised when I think of the blog because what I thought at the time of a particular book is nothing like what I think it in the long term. It's kind of the issue with focus-grouping movies I think

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