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. When 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 that The Windup Girl had been written by some young literary lion schooled on 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 solanaceae, 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).
Ted Gioia is publishing essays on his 50 favorite works of non-realist fiction released since 2000. Featured books will include works of magical realism, alternative history, sci-fi, horror, and fantasy, as well as mainstream literary fiction that pushes boundaries and challenges conventional notions of verisimilitude.