Sep 8, 2011

Bioengineering and The Windup Girl

I just finished reading Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Windup Girl," and I'm a bit pissed off.  Not as pissed off as I was after reading Scott Smith's "The Ruins," but still irked.  Let's set aside the writing for now, and just talk about the premise of the book.  The supposed science doesn't gel.  As a bioengineered "New Person," Emiko moves with a jerky stutter-stop motion (to mark her as a non-human) and has the loyalty and submissiveness of a dog.  In fact, a genetic scientist character remarks that her gene pool comes partially from a Labrador retriever.

Emiko's submissive behavior strains credulity.  Humans have a very similar pack mentality to dogs, and I think the only reason most people are not blindly submissive to authority is because we can think and reason.  As an intelligent human being (she speaks seven languages), Emiko should be able to overcome her submissive genes.  But even when she's gang raped, Emiko can't help but obey commands.  Right.  In creating the character of Emiko, the author created a fantasy female ... yet another sexbot.  She's cute, tiny, submissive, built for good sex, super-powerful, in need of rescue, and ready to drop to the floor and worship the first man who gives her the time of day.  Oh gee, where have I seen this before?  Could it be Freya from "Saturn's Children?"  Or how about Pepper Potts, who was not engineered to be a sexbot, but was just born that way?  There are too many to name.  To me, this character archetype is very transparent as a male fantasy object.

Oh, and how sexy is stutter-stop motion?  I have trouble believing that scientists would bioengineer sex-slaves who move like creaky robots.  They would find some other, much sexier, way to mark them as different.

Now let's talk about the bioengineered mastadons.  In this futuristic novel, climate change has wreaked havoc and the world is starving to death.  People can no longer rely on petroleum.  So in order to power their computers, people rely on spring or windup mechanisms, gas power, or ... mastadons?!  Yes, that's right.  Apparently these enormous bioengineered elephants are very efficient in converting food to power.  I'm not sure I buy this.  If your country is starving to death, would you rather plant a field full of hay (or whatever mastadons eat), or a field full of wheat or corn for human consumption?  A mastadon must eat a lot more than a human.  Honestly, if this is a survival scenario, I think that any government would put its citizens first, and sell or butcher the poor mastadons.

I wanted to like this novel, since it came so highly recommended, and it won the coveted Hugo Award.  But in addition to the issues I mentioned above, I didn't like any of the characters.  This was a difficult book for me to get through.  The only reason I stuck through until the end was a) because I was listening to it as an audio-book, which makes it easier, and b) high quality prose.  Paolo Bacigalupi writes atmosphere and action equally well.  Several times, I was tempted to stop reading, but some clever little hook pulled me through to the next scene.

I kept hoping to warm to the main characters ... or hoping to see them die in some deservedly unpleasant way.  I was partially rewarded in the end.  The characters never redeem themselves, but several of them get served a piece of justice.

This is Highbrow science fiction, with a capital "H."  It's not about fun characters or a fun story.  It's about a Messsage, written in a very elegant, intricate, complex, brutally adult way, so you'll feel smarter for reading it.  I guess I feel a little smarter.  But I can't quite bring myself to recommend this to the average reader.  Go for it if you love Charles Stross, China Meiville, and Neal Stephenson.  They're not bad company.

1 comment:

Italia said...

Speaking of genetic engineering, geneticists at a "calorie companies", a bunch of evil corporations located in Des Moines for some strange reason, have deliberately created super-parasites and crop blights, to wipe out the world's food sources and make everyone dependent on their genetically-modified (GM) products (GM food fears, check! Large, faceless company fears, check! Fears of Midwestern states, che--wait, what?!).

Genetic engineering ain't all bad though, since it's allowed the Japanese to neatly solve their problem of a declining population without having to rely on any foul-smelling foreigners. They've created "windups", tailor-made test-tube people, smarter, faster and stronger than ordinary folk, but with deliberate built-in weaknesses to stop them taking over the planet, such as the stuttering motion that gives them their nickname.

Emiko is the "Windup Girl" of the title, bred to be a businessman's ideal personal secretary--sexy, multilingual, obedient, and when you're done with her, pop her in the recycling bin. Her last boss didn't want to keep her but didn't have the stomach to mulch her, so she has been abandoned in Bangkok, forced to work in a nightclub where she is continually humiliated as subhuman.