I received The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi, as a christmas present, and the lazy season being as it is started reading immediately. I was initially interested and a little disappointed, but the book soon turned a corner and became an excellent and impressive read.

The book is set in a medium-future post-collapse Bangkok, after global warming has devastated the climate, peak oil has devastated the economy, and international agribusinesses have (possibly deliberately) devastated the biosphere. In a world without oil or significant biodiversity the economy depends heavily on calories – energy for large swathes of the population is generated through human or animal motion, i.e. through converting calories to electricity, and stored in springs and batteries. It is a world of windup radios and huge genetically-engineered elephants generating power through treadmills. It is also a world in which basic foods and animals we take for granted have disappeared through the reckless (or perhaps deliberate) behaviour of the calorie companies, whose genetically-engineered disease have gone wild and destroyed much of the plant and animal life of the world, leaving whole nations dependent on the genetically engineered crops that the calorie companies release every year.

In amongst all of this the kingdom of Thailand survives independent of the calorie companies and free of starvation, and is slowly reintroducing species of plant that have passed out of living memory. The suspicion is that they have a seedbank, but were this to be confirmed the calorie companies would happily destroy the kingdom to find it. The story concerns the interactions of several characters – a foreign businessman seeking the seedbank and his Malaysian Chinese refugee assistant; a Japanese genetically engineered “New Person,” (the eponymous “windup girl”); and a representative of the Thai Environment Ministry. These people are slowly brought together in an environment of intense pressure as the political pressures within the city slowly build up to breaking point.

My initial disappointment at this book was the standard trade in racial stereotypes. The Malaysian Chinese man was so racist and thought in such stereotypical “old” chinese lines as to be a caricature; the Japanese girl is genetically designed to be subservient, obedient, and enjoy sex even when it is rape – she moves with strange, awkward movements and attracts and repulses foreigners; and the Thais are all lazy and corrupt (bar one). Everyone distrusts every other race and everyone follows their own racial tropes. But in a rare achievement for any book of any genre, the characters quite quickly begin to overcome supposedly powerful racial and cultural traits, becoming instead well-rounded and interesting individuals whose personality reflects their cultural background without being overwhelmed by it. The Malaysian Chinese refugee, initially quite a detestable character, is portrayed (I think) quite sensitively in the light of the traumatic events of his flight from Malaysia and his new-found paranoia and trauma, and his behaviour becomes increasingly understandable as the story progresses. The Windup Girl’s continuing battle against her genetically-designed instinct to serve makes her a strong and interesting character, even in the face of her obvious personal weaknesses; and the Thai characters very quickly differentiate themselves from a common mass of corrupt and lazy “Asians” to become a society who, despite their many flaws, survive proudly where all around them have collapsed.

This book also does something which I am disappointed to say is very rare in science fiction: it attempts to portray a post-global warming, post-peak oil world. We know these things are coming to us, and although we don’t necessarily expect them to be catastrophic (as this book portrays them) they nonetheless make excellent fields of inquiry for speculative fiction, but they’re sadly rather thin on the ground. Why is this? It seems like a woeful dereliction of duty by the speculative fiction world to have not bothered to create such settings. It’s not as if Sci-fi hasn’t concerned itself with post-apocalyptic stories, so why doesn’t it make more effort with post-semi apocalypses? I would have thought that even if one rejects the claims of climate scientists, it still makes a very interesting world to explore. But there seem to be precious few. This book does a really good job of portraying the kind of world one might imagine would arise after the end of oil, as well as the consequences of a general biodiversity catastrophe, an interesting challenge to think about. Even though at its heart the spring-driven energy storage concepts described in the novel are completely unrealistic, and the calorie economy probably overly optimistic (modern agriculture turns oil into calories, and is unlikely to survive peak oil), the presentation is believable and sets up an interesting set of constraints and demands for the characters to work within. The concept of a seedbank as a treasure worth destroying nations for (as is implied happened in Finland) is a very nice touch, for example.

This book also has a tight plot and a really good way of merging a couple of different stories together. My only complaint about the plot is that ultimately the thread involving the foreign businessman seemed strangely unnecessary (except for its role in an important coincidence) and it could probably have been made more relevant in the final third of the book with a few minor plot tweaks. There were also a few unnecessary sidelines involving the Environment Ministry workers, which could have been cut out I think. But besides that, the plot was tight, believable, exciting and tense. It reminded me in many ways of a good Neal Stephenson book without the sudden collapse at the ending, and where everything comes together well instead of looking all a bit confused and wayward.

This book is, overall, an excellent read, with a believable post-apocalyptic world with a really interesting back history, engaging characters who you really come to feel for, in an exotic and novel setting where everyone plays for very high stakes. Well worth trying out, even if you don’t think environmental apocalypse is on the cards, or aren’t that interested in Asian settings.