Archive for September, 2012

Paolo Bacigalupi – The Windup Girl (Book Review)

The Windup Girl cover

Paolo Bacigalupi – The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl takes place in the same desolate near-future as Paolo Bacigalupi’s short stories “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man”. The one-two hit of an energy crisis and food shortage means that all surviving industry is driven by manual labor, whose expense in “calories” will slowly kill the starving laborers. The book’s genetically engineered marvels may reflect the promise of the future, but it’s a not-too-subtle morality tale: The pandemics and food shortages that plague mankind are the the direct, perhaps intentional, product of greedy genetic engineers.

The previous stories of this world were collected in Bacigalupi’s Pump Six and Other Stories, one of the best books I read last year. This novel is good, though it doesn’t live up to the high standards those short stories set for me. The quicker tales can emphasize the desolation and hopelessness of the setting, but the author (sensibly) restrains himself from making a novel-length story that bleak. The longer format emphasizes Bacigalupi’s deft touch with other cultures – it’s set in Thailand, and both its setting and the foreigners mixed in feel natural – but the moral lesson at the end feels disappointing when it follows hundreds of pages of complex build-up.

If The Windup Girl doesn’t always emphasize the same things that the previous short stories did, it finds a new way to explore human cruelty: Emiko, the titular “Windup Girl”, is a genetically engineered slave, abandoned in a country where her kind are illegal. While prostituting herself to abusive clients who consider her less than human, she tries to keep a dream of freedom alive. Subservient by design, her fight against her own nature establishes the core theme of the book.

Emiko’s scenes have an additional duality: The writing is as violent and lurid as the worst exploitation material, but their power and humanity is undeniable. I wouldn’t blame anyone who found this book to be horrifying or unreadable, especially in the context all the recent debates about rape as a lazy writing tool. But I would say that even the worst writing tropes exist because people are trying to copy from other works that used them well, and The Windup Girl is one of those good ones. No topics should be completely off-limits, and this is an example of why. It’s too bad to think that the empathetic and necessary scenes here may inspire lesser writers to create awful, violent works.

The Windup Girl is a complex, controversial story built atop a world that Bacigalupi is now familiar enough with to keep in the background. It’s not what I expected from his previous stories, but it’s unique enough to work as both a companion piece to them and as a standalone novel.

Grade: B

Connie Willis – Doomsday Book (Book Review)

Doomsday Book cover

Connie Willis – Doomsday Book

Imagine that time travel is discovered a few generations from now, but the only application anyone uses it for is to send historians back to gather first-hand information. If you can keep from questioning this unlikely gimmick, then you might be ready for Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book.

The first of Willis’ novels about time-traveling historians, this one features a university student named Kivrin who becomes the first person to travel to the Middle Ages. The procedure is botched, though, thanks to an incompetent administrator eager to send Kivrin off before anyone can remind them that that era was considered too dangerous to travel to. Before long, the people in both times find themselves dealing with a disease outbreak, while the more reliable characters desperately try to figure out how to get her back safely.

The novel positions itself as both a comedy and a drama. It would have been better off as a pure drama, though. The humor comes entirely from one-note characters who are allotted one annoying character trait each (say, a love of playing the bells or the need to cast blame on others) that they use without pause. Unrealistic and irritating, this kept me from ever becoming invested in the characters. It’s a shame, because the dramatic portions would have been good if I had been able to buy into them. It is interesting to see the contrast between the way two different cultures handle a similar crisis, and Kivrin’s growth in response to a Medieval priest’s faith is surprisingly touching. Willis obviously had multiple big ideas that she was capable of handling in this novel.

The portrayal of the past is simple, but feels consistent and well-researched enough to fit the conceit that people are seeing the “real” era. The portrayal of the future is simple as well, and this is more problematic. After discovering time travel, making brain implants that can immediately adapt to a new language, and curing (almost) all diseases, how can the rest of their life be based on technology fundamentally unchanged from 1992? Our actual culture has changed more in twenty years than Willis predicted in sixty. On top of that, the time travel technology is so blatantly designed around the needs of the story that Willis may as well have just called it a magic spell: It may prevent items from going through if necessary to prevent paradoxes, and with such accuracy that it will block the germs carried by your body if the people in that time don’t already have immunity. Though you can travel to a different year, it must be the same date. This means that time effectively progresses the same for the people in the past and the future, so there is a risk that they will miss the rendezvous with Kivrin if everyone in the future is sick for too long. None of this is explained, nor do they ever give the impression that the scientists understand this technology enough to have invented it.

Doomsday Book wants to be a fast-paced airplane read with a few big ideas that stick with you. I was bored after the first third, which is a major problem for a story like that. I’m apparently in the minority – like most of Willis’ books, this won both the Hugo and the Nebula – but I don’t get the appeal. With taut drama sabotaged by ridiculous characters, science fiction derailed by a laughable foundation, and intelligent ideas that are usually overshadowed by these flaws, Doomsday Book has all the pieces it needs to succeed, but never fits them together.

Grade: C


Image Comics First Looks, Part 2

As promised, here is part two of my look at new ongoing Image comics. It is, of course, limited to only the ones that I chose to read, but with the sheer number of new series coming out from them, it would have to be limited in some way no matter what.

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