Review: THE WINDUP GIRL by Paolo Baciagalupi

Reading this story is watching the lifecycle of a genre fiction. At first it was an idea. Then it was a world. Then it was characters. Then it was a story. This particular organism suffered from its organic path. It did not evolve. In fact it lost something at each step. This is because, quite simply, Paolo Baciagalupi is a very bad writer.

THE IDEA: Competing agrabusinesses unleash crop blights. They go too far; food diversity disappears, food scarcity follows. An energy crisis is hot on the heels, then in hooves, and the Four Horsemen are in business. General societal collapse results, until the clock is turned back a hundred years. Cities develop elements of the cargo cult, living in the wreckage of the former glory like the nameless Saxon narrator of The City. It is a realistic and yet somehow romantic vision of a near-future… and its necessitation of creative energy (and other) alternatives is perhaps the only realistic scenario for the introduction of low-complexity digital replacement technology: that is to say, steampunk.

THE WORLD: East Asia, though its attempts at realistic portrayal of a place and culture are ground underneath the heel of the profound changes introduced by the little apocalypse. It has not only orientalism of the globe, but a kind of orientalism of the spirit; it takes a place and tries to portray it faithfully, then does its very best to change that place to make it interesting – admitting it was not before. More and more new world-changes are introduced, each with the Otherness of a deliberate twist meant to call attention to itself like a rodeo clown. They pile on each other until the whole books feels like a world-building exercise, rigid and unrealistic, with automatons moving pithy preset paths along a board-game of a world. It lacks an adult’s understanding of the fluidity of things; it is geopolitics as seen through the lens of the D&D Player’s Handbook. It lacks humanity; that is, it lacks agency.

THE CHARACTERS: Their motivations are singular and simple; their character traits didactic; their flaws transparent; desperate to give them gritty beginnings that grow to triumphant, desperate adventure, Baciagalupi instead gives them farcically horrid origins from which they meander to wimpering conclusions and simpering love. Their various character arcs each have beginnings, middles, ends, so clearly plotted on lined paper at the back of a writer’s workshop that it might serve as a humbling et in arcadia ego for those considering an MFA. The trouble is, none of the half-dozen major characters have arcs which could not themselves be dispensed with in a half-dozen pages and handful of scenes. The overwhelming trouble with the book is that it is padded like a child dressed as a mummy for Halloween. It could have been a good short story. Instead it is a bad short story… and 400 pages.

THE STORY: The desires of the various characters are hollow and unimportant – of little import to them, it seems, and no import to the world, and utterly lacking in import to the reader. The rare occasion when this is not so is introduced suddenly, approached with abysmal didacticism, and then never given any definite resolution or substantive exploration. The great climax is without suspense, without agency, without care. The first hint of an interesting story occurs in the last few pages of the book, for only then is there the tiniest suggestion that any character will be going forth to accomplish something, any of these players be actual actors in the drama of this world.

THE WORST: Much of this book is torture porn. There are scenes ten pages or more in length which are comical, farcical, practically clownish: rape scenes. They are not necessary to the story, but that is not their crime – they are bad. If they were to be sadistic and yet sexy, provoking an uncomfortable reaction in the reader that would require self-examination… or in fact provoke any other reaction besides distaste and the dull… for they are at once horrific and boring, disgusting and sterile, so overblown as to be without resonance and so vapid as to cause one to skim the page, looking or scene’s end. Perhaps dear Paolo was the victim of poor compromise, seeking to declare with every description, “Here’s this horrifying thing which I feel the need to present, but in order to make clear my condemnation thereof I shall present it with such detachment that it might as well be seen through one-way glass.” The problem, dear author, is one of optics: no matter how gritty your set-pieces, seen from a great enough distance they will still blur together into a plane of beige, indistinct, tepid, tortuous only to read.

There are some wonderful ideas here. I wish only that Mr. Baciagalupi had given them to a writer.

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~ by davekov on 16 June 2012.

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