And, for the first time in a while, I go back to science fiction. In truth, I didn’t actually know that when I started reading – it’s a borrowed book on a recommendation – but I’m glad I didn’t, in case that stopped me. My bias towards fantasy rather than sf needs to be re-examined now and then, after all.
The Wind-Up Girl is set in a dystopian future of agricultural devastation and desperation, where those who can genetically engineer the next strain of wheat that might last against disease for a few plantings have all the power. It is not made precisely clear how near that future is meant to be, but it is blatantly not a very distant one, and it feels distressingly real. The bleakness of the world’s food supplies is set against a starkly awful political backdrop too, where fossil fuels are all but used up, energy is almost universally garnered from animal sources, the world has returned to nearly pre-industrial levels of international communication and travel, and revolution and atrocities are everywhere to be seen. The world of the book looks back with envy and disdain at our own time and thoughtlessness with regard to our energy consumption and attitude towards the world as a whole, but manages, thankfully, to do so without a heavy hand of moralising judgement on the modern day. It isn’t a commentary, just a very realistic view that, in such a dystopian future, surely the people would look back on us without any sort of pride or love. That attitude to the past is part of a very carefully and thoroughly constructed world, which completely and believably paints a picture of a clearly technologically superior future that has gained almost nothing by its technological marvels. The “calorie companies” who create new iterations of rice and grain are viewed with near-universal negativity, and the main setting of the story is a place where such people are despised, in favour of what appears to be old fashioned ways of living. It’s an interesting hypocrisy, and one that really works to make the future Thai kingdom of the book feel desperately real.
In many ways somewhat less real are the characters, however. They come, as I see it, in three balanced pairs (the main ones, anyway) – Anderson and Emiko, Kanya and Jaidee and Hock Seng and Mai. Each pair has a cold, calculating and empty character, and a more real, more human, more emotional and alive character. The choice of who is who, however, is what makes the whole thing work, though. It is Kanya and Jaidee’s relationship which is most fully explored in this sense in the book – Jaidee himself comments a lot on their relative emotional expression – but it is Anderson and Emiko whose pairing is most exemplary and most interesting, I think. Emiko, the eponymous Wind-Up Girl, is a “New Person”, a genetically engineered toy-slave, who has been abandoned in Thailand by her Japanese owner. It is repeated again and again throughout the book that New People have no souls, are not real people, and it is her emotions and her struggles that we are pulled into and for which we feel most keenly. By contrast, Anderson, a normal, “real” person is cold, dead and distant. It isn’t that the reader is meant to dislike him. He just lacks anything human upon which we could fix our sympathy or care. Even when his actions are irrational and driven by very human and emotional reasons, he is written distant and reasoned and cold. He and Emiko exist as opposites to further each other’s development, and to provide each other with a contrast. The dynamic is a very successful one, and its repetition (with some differences) in the other two sets of characters works very neatly. In each case, the two characters function as opposites that further each other, and it makes for very compelling reading.
It is, in fact, a very character driven book, for sf. This isn’t to say the plot is absent or lacking – it really isn’t – but from my experience of sf, characters seem to fall to the background for the sake of the exposition. It’s quite the opposite here. The exposition and ideas become mentions and suggestions and unexplained references and as such, create a far more realistic and believeable backdrop for the drama the characters play out. Because things go unexplained, as though they were things we must obviously know without needing explanation, even when the words are in Thai or Chinese, they feel like real details. No character functions as an explainer of the alien; we are left to figure it out for ourselves. And that’s entirely possible. Nothing is left beyond the reach of the reader; it’s just not made easy for us. This reversal of the general trend (of sf books I’ve read, so I’m sure I’m wrong with regard to an awful lot of other stuff) seems a much more successful way to air a very clever idea about a future world that feels, by the end of the book, nearly inevitable. I think I’d read more sf, if more sf authors wrote like this.
Where it does feel like sf (compared to fantasy, in my general experience, which is not enormous, caveats caveats and more caveats), is that the pace is more restrained than what I normally seek in my reading. It is written plainly and retains its measured pace throughout, and somehow that really works. Don’t ask me why. Normally I’d think that was a bad idea (see my previous discussion of A Princess of Mars which does precisely this and fails spectacularly) but here, it works so beautifully.
I strongly recommend this book to everyone. It is genuinely wonderful, and plainly the best book I’ve read for a good long while. It feels a lot like Sonmi’s chapter in Cloud Atlas, but excels beyond Mitchell (though not by a huge amount) and it far outclasses the trash I normally read.