The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Night Shade Books, 2010. 359 pp. 978-1-59780-158-4.
...(a book I cannot summarize in a single sentence).
This is quite possibly one of the more hauntingly written and disturbingly REAL science-fiction novels I have ever read. This book is set in the future, though how far in the future, we do not know. I would guess perhaps a century or two. The story is set in Thailand: a gritty, dirty Thailand that feels more like a thing of the past, rather than a thing of the future. At this point in the world's future, humans have tampered with genetics so much that there are no longer naturally-occurring species of edible plants, and most animals are hybrids between natural species and human-engineered species. The hybridization of the world's agricultural plants has led to a massive amount of instability in the plants: particular strains of a plant will be fruitful for a season or two, before they fall victim to a disease called blister-rust, which renders them toxic. Human tampering with genetics has also led to the evolution of viruses and diseases that wipe out hundreds of millions of people. These diseases are constantly evolving, staying just ahead of human medical technology. In this grim new world, humanity has exhausted the planet's coal and oil resources, so almost everything is powered on mechanical energy... that is, a human or an animal has to crank the needed power into the device in question. Because of the dire need for edible foodstuffs, the world is dominated by "calorie companies"... the corporations who are constantly trying to engineer new fruits, vegetables and grains, to stay one step ahead of the blister-rust.
The story follows several different plotlines, all of which eventually merge in the final chapters. One plotline follows a man named Anderson Lake, an American calorie-man living in Thailand, searching for viable genetic material for his company to use in their engineering. The Thai people have a hidden seedbank of unadulterated samples; that is Anderson's goal. The second plotline follows Emiko, an engineered girl ("windup") from Japan. Her makers engineered her to be beautiful and obedient, but she has been abandoned in Thailand and finds herself working in a brothel. The third major plotline follows some employees of the Thai government. Their division is tasked with trying to control disease outbreaks, and to control the introduction of new genetic material into the country. They find themselves constantly at war with other factions in their own government, factions that would like to see more foreign enterprises in Thailand.
This book is very well written, and the plot moves along at a nice pace. Bacigalupi does an extremely nice job of setting the tone and showing us the story's context, without making it seem like he's just telling it to us. The characters, though perhaps not very lovable, are characterized well enough that you feel sympathetic to each of them, even though many of them are working towards opposing goals.
A warning: This is not an easy read, for several reasons. The first reason is that the writing is so effective that the grimness of the story can be a bit of a hindrance. With the exception of one or two brief scenes of only one or two paragraphs, it's not particularly an excessively violent or brutal read, just a grim read. The second reason is that there are so many plot lines that it's a pretty complex read, and it's very important to read slowly and carefully, for detail. Seemingly unrelated plotlines will all come together, eventually. The third reason is that the narrative is peppered with phrases in Thai. The words are never defined, and it's left to the reader to suss out the meaning of the Thai phrases based on context. The fourth reason is that the book is written in the present tense, which threw me off a bit. Having finished the book, I kind of like that he chose to write it in the present tense. Despite the grimness of the story line, the novel does end with a note of hope. Putting the book into the present tense means the events are happening now, not in the past, and that leaves the future open and unwritten.
Although it is not at all necessary, it might be helpful for the reader to have a general understanding of how current-day biotech and agriculture operates; for a good layperson read on this topic, I recommend Lords of the Harvest. A solid understanding of this topic will let the reader see that this futuristic science-fiction is perhaps not as futuristic or fictional as it might seem. Bacigalupi is clearly interested in this topic, probably one of the most significant hot topics in the world (in my opinion). A careful comparison between his novel and current trends in biotechnology today makes the book much more chillingly relevant. The very best science-fiction (film, television, novels, short stories...) sets itself in a world that is still relevant to present cultural and political climates; Bacigalupi succeeds beautifully in this. Highly recommended reading.