Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Paolo Bacigalupi's Carbon-Soaked Apocalypse

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part Seven
Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl

When the rest of the world drowned in carbon and rising seas, Thailand stood strong, held off the tide, and kept producing its own crops. But genetically customized diseases threaten to overwhelm this last bastion of purity. American companies jockey for position, nativist troops fight to keep the round-eyes out, and one desperate, scared, abandoned woman, grown in a vat as a toy for rich men, struggles to stay alive in the face of world-smashing hostility.

Science fiction, despite its reputation for novelty and experimentation, largely has a history of extreme distrust of technology. While a few authors, like Isaac Asimov, place great trust in human invention, most believe the law of unintended consequences has been openly proved by history, and will obtain in the future. Paolo Bacigalupi's award-winning short fiction has shown ways in which humanity risks destroying this world by our own unfettered greed.

His debut novel goes even further in depth, providing a grim and frightening glimpse of post-apocalyptic world-building. As one group, blind to the lessons of the past, tries to recapture what they think of as lost glory, another stands for control, fighting against the coming of a bleak post-human world. Bacigalupi stands out from the mass of dystopian science fiction writers in his intricate attention to the human element in his narrative.

Many polemic writers find it easy to lapse into white hats versus black hats. No such trap here. Bacigalupi's characters are so fully defined that, in reading, I found my loyalties sliding back and forth. The guy I hated a moment ago suddenly becomes the hero of the next chapter; the virtuous victim goes on a rampage and suddenly I'm hoping she gets her own. This is a complex novel that does not permit the audience to cling to easy answers or snap judgments.

Paolo Bacigalupi
The technology is also eye-opening. One moment, it seems Bacigalupi has his eyes on the future (this year's genetically optimized crops fight last year's genetically optimized blights), and in the next, he looks over his shoulder at the past (treadle-driven appliances and clockwork springs). This is a possible future very different from any I recall reading recently, and so minutely realized that it's easy to think we may actually be headed in just this direction.

Yet in this difference, many important components remain the same. A world devastated by climatic malpractice, in which environmental ministries have the armed authority once reserved to foil murderers and thieves, sees the conflict between environment and trade persevere. But in this new world, where so much more is at stake because so much less exists, the trade/environment conflict resembles less diplomatic wrangling, more open civil war.

On the surface, humans remain human. Our vices and, too infrequently, our virtues, remain intact, even as the playing field in which we utilize them changes. Which is worth more, making a living or breathing clean air? While cold logic suggests there is no conflict—money isn’t worth much to the dead—logic has little to do with how we live our lives, and yes, sometimes we do have to make that choice. Virtue seldom pays its own bills.

But if humans remain human, that apparent truism founders when technology forces the question: what is a human? The titular windup girl, a vat-grown bodyguard and sex toy, can be abandoned without a backward glance because she is property. Lechers can mistreat her, handlers profit from her misery, and strangers beat her in public, because she isn’t legally human. When her desperation boils into violence, though, she knows deep within that she has a soul.

Science fiction, like other literature, has its traditions. The dystopian apocalyptic future has, ironically, a storied past. But as the circumstances we fear will kill us continually evolve, so do the consequences we fear await those who survive. We cannot accept the idea that everything could end. But we cannot deny that the status quo cannot stand. Whether nuclear war, alien invasion, or biological catastrophe, sci-fi collapse says as much about present society as the future we depict.

This is high-tension fiction in a complex and plausible scientific future. It's a dire warning of what we may face if we don't mend our ways and start looking after our earth. And it's a gripping story of politics, high-stakes finance, and science struggling for dominance in a world that has been transformed beyond repair. I've been looking for well-written hard science fiction for a long time. Here I've finally found it.

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