Science fiction is like one of those bohemian neighborhoods that gets gentrified and
rentrified until you can’t recognize the old hood any more. The low-class genre
writers who learned their trade at Star Trek conventions get displaced by literati
represented by Andrew Wylie, and before you know it, the whole precinct has gone
respectable. If Philip K. Dick or Robert Heinlein showed up, they’d probably get
arrested for peddling printed goods without an MFA. And you can’t stop it now.
The New Yorker came out with its science fiction issue, I realized that the
reclamation project was all but complete. The nerds, technogeeks and bohos need
to find a new home:  the serious writers have arrived.  

But the nerds still can get a dose of revenge. And their
best hope may be a fellow named Paolo Bacigalupi.  
His literary pedigree includes intensive schooling in
Conan the Barbarian, Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, the
aforementioned Mr. Heinlein and louche sources of
inspiration never assigned at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  
He didn’t learn his craft at
The New Yorker, but at High
Country News
, where he wrote science articles, and worked
as webmaster. Yes, webmaster. If they ever hold a literary
html coding contest, I’ll back Baciagalupi over Franzen in
a heartbeat.  

Can you spell N-E-R-D? But he can write, and write well.
In fact, he writes better than many esteemed literary authors.
If you didn’t know anything about this writer, you might think
The Windup Girl had been written by some young literary lion schooled
Cormac McCarthy Gabriel García Márquez and Arundati Roy.  I’m still surprised
that Baciagalupi (or his publisher) didn’t try to ‘position’ this novel as a work of
literary fiction, but the last time I looked, it’s still sitting in the sci-fi section of the local
library.  I think I’ll sneak it out, and put it on a more respectable shelf, somewhere
between Austen and Balzac.

In a moment I'll tell you what Baciagalupi does, but maybe it's better to start with
what he doesn't do.  The tell-tale blemishes of genre writing are noticeably absent
from this book. Baciagalupi doesn’t rush the plot.  He doesn’t sacrifice character
development in pursuit of
effects. He doesn't deliver a novel that looks like an
audition for a movie deal. He certainly doesn't telegraph the outcome like the vast
majority of headed-to-Hollywood fare, where you can invariably predict the ending
after reading the first chapter. (Superhero wins, evil alien loses, couple celebrates
by coupling, followed by a piquant hint of a sequel….)  He doesn't lose sight of the
psychological underpinnings necessary for plausible narrative development.  He
doesn't exaggerate the virtues of the heroes or the villainy of the villains, but
understands that most human action takes place in the gray area in-between.  He
doesn’t dumb down his prose or streamline his sentences.  In fact, he writes like he
never met Conan the Barbarian, Tarzan or John Carter of Mars.  

The opening pages of
The Windup Girl are almost a negation of the entire sci-fi
genre.  Our 'hero' Anderson Lake goes shopping for fruit in an Asian street market,
and (like Baciagalupi) he takes his time, carefully inspecting the produce before
making a purchase.  And if you are waiting for mutants, aliens, zombies, rad
weapons of mass destruction, spaceships or any other tech intrusion into this
lengthy meditation on practical botany, you will be sorely disappointed.  Instead you
get the
ngaw, a red fruit covered with green fibers, found on the ramubtan tree of
Southeast Asia.  But Lake is concerned about more than the
ngaw. He is also
obsessed with s
olanaceae, or nightshades.  I’m talking tomatoes, bell peppers and
other Whole Foods fare.

No, the bell pepper has not yet had a starring role in science fiction.  But perhaps its
time has come.

Lake works for an agriculture company developing new types of disease-resistant
plants.  But he needs to operate undercover because his employer is one of the
'gene-rippers' that caused many of the diseases in the first place.  
The Windup Girl
takes place in Thailand during the 23rd century, where genetic science is both
savior and demon, creating plagues and blights and also struggling to come up with
solutions in the face of the widespread famine they have caused.  The Thai
government only deigns to deal with employees of these biotech companies,
derisively known as
calorie men, when all other options for feeding the population
are exhausted. Lake, for his part, is intrigued by his discovery that previously extinct
plants are showing up in Thai street markets. Are other gene-rippers a step or two
ahead of him?

Lake’s public front as head of a manufacturing business serves to disguise his
controversial research into fruits and vegetables. But the factory Lake operates
leads us into a second technology-based plot in The Wind-Up Girl.  And if you were
disappointed in fruits and vegetables, you will hardly be consoled to learn that this
manufacturing operation produces manually-wound kink-springs.  Yes, this is
essentially 15th century technology, but valuable in a world where fossil fuels are
mostly depleted—and thus Baciagalupi imparts a kind of steampunk ambiance by-
and-by to his Thai sci-fi.  But at this point, technophiles may be left wondering what
retro science our author will grap on to next: the manual loom? the cotton gin?
zippers? the Pez dispenser?  

From these humble beginnings, Baciagalupi builds a great cathedral of a story, filled
with intersecting subplots and counter-narratives. Before this book reaches its brutal
conclusion, readers will encounter ghosts and cheshire cats, assassination and
international intrigue, revolutions and counter-revolutions; but the care and
intelligence with which the author builds up to these effects adds both to their power
and plausibility. There are those who believe that non-realist books do not need to
be plausible—after all, that’s why they’re non-realist, no?   But Baciagalupi is not a
party to that camp. This book may take place in a dystopian future where
megodonts trod the earth, but most of this book is more realistic than the
mainstream dramas and romances on the supermarket book rack.

This is about as character-driven as sci-fi gets.  Even secondary characters have
rich inner lives in
The Windup Girl.  Lake’s assistant Hock Seng is so fully
developed that he seems ready to take over as the main protagonist. Jaidee
Rojjanasukchai, a martial arts fighter turned government official, plays only a small
role in the story, but any Hollywood scriptwriter would immediately see his star
potential. The ‘evil genius’ gene-ripper Gibbons has only a tiny amount of time on
center stage, but is a Conradian Kurtz in the making.  And, best of all, is the windup
girl Emiko, a genetically-modified humanoid from Japan who plays so many roles in
this book—love interest, killer, abject servant, visionary dreamer—that she is,
despite her nickname, anything but mechanical or robotic.

In short, this is an impressive debut novel by any measure.  In many ways, it's exactly
the kind of science fiction book we’ve come to expect in the current day, with its
provocative blurring of genre and ‘highbrow’ literary ingredients, and its ambitious
attempt to impose intense realism on the patently unreal. But this time it’s the nerd
who shows he can beat the MFAs at their own game.  Who knows, maybe the
bohos will retake the whole neighborhood.    

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten
books. His most recent book is
How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady

Herbert, Frank

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia

Yamada, Taichi

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

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Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction