Posts Tagged ‘ Paolo Bacigalupi ’

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

The Appeal of Horror

A couple of days ago, Alicia commented on one of my blog posts. In response to my claim that Pump Six And Other Stories is a horror book because we can see ourselves and our culture in the worst parts of the stories, she said:

That’s a good point about horror. I feel like it should be distinguished from those horror *movies*, though, because this doesn’t sound anything like your typical “girl goes alone into a dark woods even though all signs point to dying screaming and crying” kind. The reason I don’t like those movies is because it all seems like gratuitous violence to me, silly or not, and I just don’t care to watch it.

I began a response by differentiating between a couple types of horror, but I immediately started finding new branches of things to say. So I never wrote the comment, and it spent a day bouncing around my head. Now I want to discuss exactly what the appeal of horror is.

I don’t watch very much horror, so I welcome feedback from anyone who is more immersed in its subtleties.

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Pump Six And Other Stories (Book Review)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pump Six And Other Stories cover

Pump Six And Other Stories

 

Pump Six And Other Stories establishes its themes on the opening page: A massive new skyscraper is being built in the city of Chengdu, using new organic technology that will actually let it grow until it covers the entire city. The description is fascinating enough that readers of this fiction will feel some exhilaration at the future that technology promises. But then, the focus shifts to the main character of the story, a starving beggar boy who lives in the filth under the shadow of this skyscraper. Technology may offer a lot of potential, but what does it matter if it only helps an elite few, while the rest of humanity is used or discarded at the whim of the powerful?

These characters are actually lucky, compared to those who populate the other short stories in this collection. At least here, some people are gaining a better world. In most of Paolo Bacigalupi’s tales, the state of the world has become so horrible that even the abusive rich people would envy our standard of living today. Most of these futures are dominated by environmental disasters, but other evils are more directly man-made: Brutal Intellectual Property police are apparently the only law in “The Calorie Man”, while “The Fluted Girl” creates a culture of slavery by applying a system of stocks and investment to individual people. One of the great features of short stories is that they don’t have to end happily. Since readers don’t invest as much emotion and time into them as they do to novels, the author doesn’t feel obligated to provide a reassuring ending. Bacigalupi takes full advantage of this: Maybe half of the stories end on a note of hope for the protagonist, if you look at them right, but the overarching feeling is one of doom. Whether or not the damage is permanent, the reader will still despair at the path that humanity is taking.

And despair they will. Bacigalupi may be called a science fiction author, but these works are better described as horror. A true horror story doesn’t need shadowy monsters of fountains of blood, but should rather unsettle the reader’s comfortable life. The disasters shown in Pump Six And Other Stories feel extrapolated from the real world, and their “day after tomorrow” nature hits in a more visceral way than present-day Inconvenient Truths can.

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