Friday, August 13, 2010

Food for thought

The Windup Girl
by Paolo Bacigalupi

Cal*o*rie (kal-uh-ree)
A unit of energy equal to the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. One calorie is equivalent to 4.1868 joules.

The biggest problem with Paolo Bacigalupi's novel The Windup Girl is me, the reader. I'm not a big fan of science fiction due to my own failure of imagination. The further away from reality as I know it, the harder it is for me to get involved in and follow a story.

Bacigalupi's much-lauded and honored debut is set in our world--in Thailand, a few hundred years in the future. But it's a much-changed world. Specifically, it's a post-petroleum world. I started this review with a definition of the word "calorie." In this weight-obsessed time, people have forgotten that a calorie is actually a measure of energy. That point isn't commented upon in the text, but it seems relevant as much of the novel revolves around the Kingdom of Thailand's need to feed its people and power its nation and economy.

It seems a variety of plagues have beset the agricultural world. Some may have been natural, some engineered, and surely climate change has taken its toll. Unfortunately, commerce may have played an even larger role, with sterile, disease-resistant seed stocks being owned by huge multi-national "calorie companies." The powers that be in Thailand seek independence from these monopolies, even as central character Anderson Lake, a "calorie man," investigates the available food sources cropping up outside of Agrigen's control.

This description barely scratches the surface of this complex novel. It is an intriguing exploration of a post-petroleum society with regard to the science, industry, and politics of the time. Internal Thai politics are a big part of the story, as are crime and punishment, social mores, and the often clashing cultures which have been thrust together in a volatile environment. Finally, it is a novel of relationships, human and not-quite-human...

Narrator Jonathan Davies does a good job with the unabridged audiobook. I won't swear that his Asian accents are authentic or even culturally sensitive, but my American ears could understand the dialogue clearly. In fact, I had an easier time discerning the huge cast of characters from the distinct voices he created than I did from the unfamiliar foreign names.

The Windup Girl wasn't exactly my cup of tea, but I'm glad to have read it. It's left me with more than a little food for thought.

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