Can Paolo Bacigalupi's novel The Windup Girl save the world?

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

In The Windup Girl (Night Shade Books, $24.95), Paolo Bacigalupi's first novel, a novel you could drown in, a tale so tidal with the Near Future that any claim to stake out the territory it surveys might seem Canute-ish, there does remain a least one human who still hopes to hold on to the world. He is a character, it follows, from the planet-shattering past we all remember, as residents of this planet who remember the 20th century, and as readers of science fiction, the literature that said the 20th century was going to work. He is (of course) male, white, smart, old.

Like so many of the mad scientists and realpolitiking consiglieri who claimed sovereignty over the rest of us throughout the literature of the past century, he is a Faustian entrepreneur, a transformer of the planet for gain. He is selfish, rapacious, cunning, loquacious, profoundly cynical. His fingers are in the pie, even now, in what seems to be the early 22nd century, in Thailand, a country sanisealed from global devastation (though only pro tem). His very existence marks the world as a story that is not ending well. But though the venal and the desperate search for him frantically, he cannot be found by them; like Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899), he is somewhere upriver.

This time round the name of Faust is Gibbons. For much of the indurated durance vile of The Windup Girl—which is set in the energy-depleted corporation-dominated world adumbrated in Bacigalupi's "The Calorie Man" (2005), and in the hyper-saturated Bangkok featured in "The Yellow Card Man" (2006)—he serves as a MacGuffin, though an exceedingly deadly one, as the attempts to find him, on the part of all those will never work out his wherabouts, indirectly generate the catastrophe that floods—literally—the tale at its close.

When we do meet Gibbons at last, it is in the company of someone who has always known his location as a matter of course, for he was never in fact hidden—an irony that, clearly deliberately, dismantles much of the quest structure whose twists Bacigalupi has had us following. It is fun and not fun to be misled in this fashion. Some of the strengths certainly—but also much of the frustratingness—of The Windup Girl can be laid down to narrative deflations of this sort, to a cavalier habit of dismissing readerly expectations that we have contracted to hold: This can serve to shock us, but the philosophical point such a strategy makes—ie, in this case, that humanity itself has lost the story of the planet—can seem over-egged if fiddled with too much: as here, every once in a while.

Gibbons in person is a wheelchair-bound rotting grotesque, afflicted with one of the plagues that have riven the world for many decades; as a godlike guru-cum-scientist employed by one of the corporations that control the world's genetically engineered but diminishing sources of plague-resistant food supply, he may seem more a figure out of myth or pulp than normally, or appropriately, found in a roman fleuve of the Near Future, a world no story can do more than skim, a world no hero can do more than splash in before drowning. This would seem to be the main lesson conveyed by the collapse of most of the plots hatched within this book (see above): but Gibbons survives all this fiddle. He warns Kanya—the Environmental Ministry cop who's always known how to find him—that the "beasts and plagues" that torment Thailand

are not dumb machines to be driven about. They have their own needs and hungers. Their own evolutionary demands. They must mutate and adapt, and so you will never be done with me, and when I am gone, what will you do then? We have released demons upon the world, and your walls are only as good as my intellect.

But that intellect cannot save Homo sapiens.

We are half-drowned in The Windup Girl before we get our sea legs. But lines of story soon let us breathe. Four separate narrative strands—three with a single point-of-view protagonist, one with two—convey us breakneck through the foetor and the heat of post-collapse Thailand, long after the Expansion of the West (where we are now) had led to a convulsive worldwide Contraction, and to a humanity obsessed with calories, understood as units of pure energy, and food. The seas have risen. There is no more oil, or other extractable resources (megadonts, gengineered elephants, provide most of the muscle). The world population of humans has shrunk, but there are still too many of us. Bangkok itself is a slurry of races and factions, surrounded by literal dikes; they are ultimately useless.

Anderson, a calorie man working for one of the American food oligopolies, is in Bangkok ostensibly to manage a "kink-spring" factory that manufactures wind-up energy coils, but is actually here to search out old unmutated foodstuffs from Thailand's hidden caches of unaltered flora. He finds an edible plant, but knows that its genetic secrets are held by Gibbons. His Chinese assistant Hock Seng, an old entrepreneur bankrupted by climate change and perverse bad luck, focuses his conspiratorial plans on a hugely more efficient kink-spring that Anderson's disgraced predecessor had been developing. Jaidee, a bouncing, Monty Pythonish athlete and company man, disturbs the balance of forces between some of the factions milling about in doomed Bangkok, and is destroyed. The eponymous Emiko is a windup girl, one of the New People who have been fabricated partly out of human stock, and whose anima-doll-like "heechy keechy" movements identify her as sub-human. As Gibbons tells her at the deus ex machina closing of the tale, "The windup movement is not a required trait"—it has been fed into the cauldron of her manufacture solely to identify her. Emiko, who seems to give off pheromones no "full" human male can resist, reminded me very strongly of the heroine of Spirited Away: spunky, obedient, with a great work ethic, longing to be free: and ultimately free. Though mostly acted upon—so that her close intricate involvement with the parodic gears of plot as the world collapses around her is basically passive, and her centrality to the tale is a kind of sleight of hand—Emiko is an extremely rich creation, and, as the tale ends, a slingshot.

The subaqueous intensity of The Windup Girl is, perhaps, in the end, slightly deceptive, as it is entirely possible to be so circumambiated by Bacigalupi's quite extraordinary, virtuoso, shock-immersion rendering of his transformed world that one misses what might seem obvious in full synopsis: that The Windup Girl is a Thought Experiment. What if no other energy sources remained to us but calories extracted basically by hand from algae? (No contemporary alternative energy techniques are presumed to survive.) What if the electronic world—the Internet, the hugely potent memory archives been constructed around us in 2009—have completely disappeared, except for a very occasional pedal-driven computer with defective memory storage? What if, what if?

In a way, the obviousness of these what-ifs detracts from the plausibility of the whole; but this is to scant the usefulness of the Thought Experiment, the kind of story in which a limited extrapolition can be run through its paces till the tale ends, or falls apart. The uneasiness of the plotting of The Windup Girl—the demolished quest structure, the anomalous survival of a god-guru from centuries back, the quadripartite story structure that ties chaos together all too neatly, then drops the ball of threat to warn us not to be complacent, then trots out a few more coincidences—seems to reveal a more general dis-ease on Bacigalupi's part with the utility of Story to tell the tale of a fissuring world.

There may be no way to box this compass. The Windup Girl is as much an artifact composed of incompatibles as Emiko herself: a contrivance designed to contrive; a New Story designed to array us with the flood of the new. I think it is an important book, and a fine one.

But as Story goes, it announces the end of the line.