We’ll still have airships and GMOs

It’s not the apocalypse. And it’s certainly not the Death Star or the planet Tatooine. But The Windup Girl is a compelling vision of our industrial world as it could be in a low-energy future.

The Windup Girl cover
The Windup Girl

By Paolo Bacigalupi
Nightshade Books. 361 pp. $14.95.

Sci Fi for smart people

Many futuristic tales inhabit a world with all the social depth of Dungeons and Dragons.

Their politics is white hat vs. black hat and the prize is power-for-power’s-sake. Spaceships, lasers and teleporters run on an endless supply of safe clean energy (either “nuclear power” or just plain magic), so there’s never a need to stop for gas or recharge a battery. Forget about nation states — every planet has somehow been unified into a single cultural and political entity and the real action is with interplanetary empires and federations.

And then there’s money. Or not. Did Darth Vader ever have to wrangle with accounting for more budget to cover stormtrooper body armor? Did we ever see Mr Sulu grouse about the price of Vitamin Water as he fumbled for change in the PX of the Starship Enterprise?

A world with high tech but no worries about money or energy is a silly fantasy. The Windup Girl rises far above such childish fare, with savvy about energy, economy and humanity that helps make the political power-plays of its plot come alive.

Blade Runner but better

Bacigalupi’s world is more like Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, a consumer economy where people interact through the marketplace much as they do today. Sure, there are spaceships, off-world colonies and androids. But on the gritty streets and in corporate offices alike, people still care about buying and selling stuff and making money. Ads are everywhere and corporations still run the whole shebang. But despite overpopulation and pollution so bad in the city that it rains all the time, there’s still plenty of energy.

On that score, Bacigalupi goes Blade Runner one better. In his vision of the 22nd century set in a futuristic Thailand that’s both high and low tech, the oil has run out and no future energy source has come to take its place. So no spaceships. Even the airplanes have been grounded and most cars are off the road.

But his world is not without energy or technology. Nations fight over the remaining coal, which the government uses to light bureaucrats’ offices and power the pumps that protect Bangkok from climate change’s risen sea levels. Coal also provides liquid fuel for military vehicles and the remaining cars of the rich. And industry does roll out two new energy sources, metal springs and genetically modified organisms. The latter include algae and revivified mastodons, each of which has its own dangers.

Bacigalupi’s GMO industry also gives his world androids, including the windup girl Emiko of the book’s title, a test-tube geisha-cum-translator marooned in Bangkok after her owner, at the end of a business trip, decides it would be cheaper to replace her once he gets home than to pay her airship fare back to Japan.

An outlaw in a nation that’s banned New People along with other GMOs, Emiko is protected by Anderson, the secret agent for AgriGen. The Thais have closed their market to the hated calorie companies for manipulating the world’s food supply and releasing dangerous genetically modified organisms, including bioweapons, into the ecosystem. But Anderson thinks he knows a way to re-open the lucrative market and get access to the secret Thai seed bank, which would allow his company to produce many new products.

The Contraction

Recovering from the collapse of the world economic system after the oil ran out and ended the Expansion, today’s era of global trade, Bacigalupi’s Bangkok is a melange of the old, the new and the possible.

In the leaner era known as the Contraction, glass office towers, now without power for their elevators and half-dismantled by scavengers, serve as the city’s new slums. Mahouts wrangle the powerful megadonts that provide elephantine muscle for industry. And with foreign devils plotting a new age of Expansion and economic imperialism, the palace continues to guard the Thai kingdom’s independence by playing global corporations off against each other just as the Kings of Siam played the French against the British in the days of Queen Victoria.

The Windup Girl would be a pleasure to read for anyone who enjoys stories of political intrigue and economic espionage set in exotic locales. And for the reader who’s also interested in peak oil, Bacigalupi’s book offers an entirely original scenario of how things could play out in a post-oil world.

– Erik Curren

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