By Paulo Bacigalupi
In a world with no oil and rising sea levels, where the United States no longer exists and scientific meddling has brought about vast gene plagues that make crop production impossible, huge Seed Corporations are all-powerful, selling their resistant-strain seeds at over-inflated prices while exerting political pressures wherever they see fit. In this world, calories are king, having calories is the true show of wealth because it means you can eat, and so can your family, and you can employ people to turn the calories they consume into power to for your home.
Anderson Lake is a Calorie Man. Working undercover as a factory manager, he is AgriGen's calorie representative in a Thailand very different geographically from the one we know but culturally the same. The Thai's have remained fiercly independent, it's people proud, and they have adapted and thrived when all around them other countries have collapsed, disappeared, given over to civil war or all three. But while one half of the government fights to keep Thailand independent, factions within the other half are plotting to seize control of the country, open it up to the Calorie Companies and reap the rewards of controlling that business themselves. And Anderson wants to help them.
But into his life comes Emiko. Emiko is one of the New People, an artificial person from Japan, one of hundreds bred to be workers, soldiers, slaves and toys, pre-programmed to do...well pretty much anything you want them to do but created with a stop-start, jerky motion so that they can be recognised as artificial by others. Gened to be subservient and to obey her master's every command, Emiko was abandoned by him when he left Thailand. On her own, with no rights, and likely to be destroyed by the authorities if she is discovered, Emiko survives by servicing the particularly vicious sexual whims of the patrons at the bar where she works. Emiko hates herself, hates her life, feels ashamed and humiliated at every turn but still she dreams of escape, of freedom, and when she mets Anderson, he shows her a way.
The first thing that strikes you about Bagicalupi's novel is the sheer breadth of vision that he demonstrates in his world-building, rendering a future that seems all too possible and is simultaneously terrifying and fascinating. Into this he drops a huge cast of characters, each beautifully wrought and fully realised, none of whom is right or wrong, black or white and he lets them play out their moves in the hopes of gaining just a little more of a toe-hold onto a better life. It's a mark of how good the writing is that you find yourself empathising with every character as each in turn wheels and double-deals their way through the story. This is in part because each has a plausible and well thought out view of life and how it should be. Some, like Hock Seng, a formerly wealthy Chinese immigrant now working for Anderson in his factory, have suffered terrible personal loss and want to regain some semblance of their old life, some dignity, others like Jaidee, Leader of the White Shirts, a ruthless government force that cracks down on anyone not holding to the traditional ways are the single incorruptible force in a sea of corrupt officials and all of them, at their core, selfish and self-absorbed.
But lets not forget that within these pages lies a taut, complex thriller, fast-paced and emotionally charged that slips through your fingers whenever you think you've got it all figured out - and believe me, you'll never guess the ending. While it never feels gratuitous because of its importance to the storyline, when it comes to some pretty nasty scenes of violence and quite disturbing scenes of sexual abuse, Bacigalupi pulls no punches, so reader beware.
But despite all that it is a novel with hope as one of the central themes. Despite all the odds and against a backdrop of political upheaval, starvation, corruption, war, cruelty and disease, none of the central characters ever gives up hope and it is this quality, the will to challenge and to fight for ourselves, that we as humans hold dear and one that we recognise in great works of fiction.
Honestly I cannot recommend The Wind Up Girl highly enough, it is destined to become one of the great SF classic novels.
You can read more Paulo Bacigalupi at his excellent blog.