Book Review: The Windup Girl (Bacigalupi)

May 23, 2010

There is no denying that Orwell’s 1984 was a relevant and terrifying speculation on the future when it came out in 1949, and that elements of its prophecy have come true, but fascism is not the threat to our way of life that it once was. The world has changed, and its nightmares have changed with it. Paolo Bacigalupi has provided an updated account of what humanity is doing to itself: welcome to the world of The Windup Girl, where domestic cats have been supplanted by flickering engineered cheshires, calories are currency, and governments and corporations struggle to stay one step ahead of the bio-terrorist super-blights which ravish the world’s rapidly diminishing supply of produce.

Many of the world’s nations have already fallen to blister rust, cibiscosis, genehack weevils, and the predations of the midwestern monopolies, which sell sterile crops so that none can take their market. Thailand has survived by nationalizing its seedbank and keeping the secrets of the last natural flora for themselves, but Anderson Lake has come undercover from AgriGen to take their secrets for his company’s profit. But his factory manager Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee from genocide, has plans of his own.

Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, the Tiger of Bangkok, leads the Environmental Ministry’s white shirt enforcers and spends his days intercepting and destroying smugglers’ loads of illegal produce and trying to elicit a laugh from his stoic second, Kanya.

Emiko is the Windup Girl, a beautiful and illegal genetic hack designed to be the companion of a wealthy Japanese businessman, abandoned on the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as abhorrent and unnatural by the Thais, she allows herself to be pressed into the life of a prostitute in exchange for shelter from the white shirts who would euthanize her.

These are the characters around whom Bacigalupi unfolds his epic tale of the age after oil, the characters whose intrigues and desperate attempts at self-preservation may tip the scales on the fate of the entire kingdom in which they machinate, may push humanity to the very brink of extinction. The Windup Girl is as relevant and terrifying as 1984 must have been when it was new. It is a vivid and fully realized conceptualization of what world we may find in the next century, and a dire warning for us all.

For more information and free reading of a few short stories set in the world of The Windup Girl, head on over to Bacigalupi’s website.

This book contains explicit sexual content.

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Book Review: The Adoration of Jenna Fox (Pearson)

March 8, 2010

Seventeen-year-old Jenna Fox awakens after more than a year in a coma to find herself in a life—and a body—that she doesn’t quite recognize. Her parents tell her that she’s been in an accident, but much of her past identity and current situation remain a mystery to her: Why has her family abruptly moved from Boston to California, leaving all of her personal belongings behind? Why does her grandmother react to her with such antipathy? Why have her parents instructed her to make sure not to tell anyone about the circumstances of their move? And why can Jenna recite whole passages of Thoreau’s Walden, but remember next to nothing of her own past? As she watches family videos of her childhood, strange memories begin to surface, and she slowly realizes that a terrible secret is being kept from her. (synopsis from School Library Journal)

This is one of those books that makes me feel somewhat out of the loop. Apparently it was something of a Big Deal. Like Keturah and Lord Death, it’s not the next great American novel or anything, but well-received and sort of acclaimed. I had never heard of it and picked it up on a whim. But I am glad that I did.

Now, personally, I will gladly debate almost anyone on politics/religion/the big questions- American culture, Christianity’s merits and flaws, LGBT rights, whether the human race deserves to go extinct… just about the only thing I won’t touch is medical ethics. This is because medical ethics are very, very scary. Drawing a line between doing right and saving lives and playing God, meddling with what shouldn’t be meddled, that is something which I refuse to have an opinion on, because it seems like a question so convoluted as to be impossible. With the kind of technology we have today, and will have in the years to come, we can do some amazing things to help people. But atque in luce, sic semper in tenebra (“as it is in light, so always in darkness”), and so on. We as human beings always manage to hurt people with our miracles, and the capacity for harm in some of the things we’re developing is mind-boggling. I don’t want to get involved.

So when someone, in this case Mary E. Pearson, tackles the very questions I’m too wussy to examine with literary grace and aplomb, I tend to cheer them on. Not only is this book full of deep thoughts, but it presents them in a way that provokes further examination long after you’ve closed its covers. Ultimately, it even presents a funny kind of hope, though the limits Pearson defines are too far past my own personal lines for comfort. It’s only 265 pages, almost slim, but is weighs on you heavily enough that it feels much longer. Gripping and powerful are the two words that come to mind, overused though they may be.

The romance seemed a little thin to me, and never quite got the point of the character Dane- he could probably have been cut out and I wouldn’t have missed him- but otherwise I liked it. Jenna herself seems to be emotionally distant for much of the book, but it fits with her lack of/developing identity, so it works. Four stars.


Book Review: Fray (Whedon, Moline, Owens)

February 8, 2010

Melaka Fray is a tough chick living a life of crime in the huge cities of the future, stealing to survive and enjoying the occasional bar fight for variety. Sure, her police sister gets on her back, and yeah, she wishes she weren’t haunted by the death of her twin brother a few years earlier, but for the most part Mel lives in the moment, kicking ass and taking names while pulling off a fantastic blue-and-pink hairstyle. This all changes the day Urkonn, a huge, demonic, “sarcastic goat-thing” steps in and informs Melaka that she is the latest in the line of the Slayers, and that it is her destiny to combat the vampire scourge. Her response? “What’s a vampire?”
Slowly, though, pushed on by a will to avenge her brother’s murder, Mel begins to take up the mantle she is meant to. It’s not enough to pick off the hunters in the alleys, however. A war is coming, one that will test Mel’s emotional fortitude even more than her physical strength as she is brought up against an enemy she never expected to have to face.

I have decided that Joss Whedon is God and that nothing he does is wrong. This may sound fanatical, but I’m basing that supposition on the fact that, to date, I have found nothing that he has done that was wrong. Fray is one of the better not-wrong things in his portfolio. If you loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you will probably enjoy this book. If you enjoy science fiction more than fantasy, you will be pleasantly surprised to find flying cars, ray guns, and sprawling, futuristic urban decay alongside the vampires and creepities. If you just want a kickass heroine who doesn’t take any crap, well, you already know that Joss Whedon supplies those without the ridiculous man-contrived accoutrements such as double-D breasts and skimpy, oft-torn clothing (God bless him). Also, there’s a giant snake. You just can’t go wrong with that.

Hell yes.

If you have already read Fray, heads up: Mel makes a second appearance in Tales of the Slayers and a third in Time of Your Life, the fourth volume of the Season 8 comic series of Buffy. I haven’t read either yet, but (see above) Joss Whedon is never wrong, and I have every confidence that it will be fantastic. Five stars.


Book Review: The Host (Meyer)

February 3, 2010

The Host by Stephenie Meyer

That's a mighty fine eyeball.

I did not like Twilight, or its three sequels, the last of which abandoned all pretense of following a story and spiraled freely into indulging all of the ridiculous fangirl fantasies that have accumulated over past few years. Nothing could ever justify Pedowolf. None of this is news; I know that I am not unique in my distaste for Stephenie Meyer’s most famous work.
With The Host, however, we have something completely different. While it is by no means the next great American novel, it is better-written, more interesting, and has more complex characters. Sad as it may be, I think that until now Stephenie Meyer has been talking down to us (and we deserve it for enjoying it). Nowhere in this book will you find a stupid quote like:
“Aren’t you hungry?” he asked, distracted.
“No.” I didn’t feel like mentioning that my stomach was already full – full of butterflies.
(which actually came from Twilight), and in some places it is downright lyrical.
Another common complaint is that Stephenie Meyer, as a woman, shouldn’t write weak female characters like Bella. And yeah, we as a gender deserve a bit more credit than she’s given us with that particular gem. Perhaps she wised up, or maybe it was a fluke; I don’t know, but the peculiar double-heroine from The Host is different. (A bit of explanation: Wanderer, the narrator, shares head space with Melanie, whose body she inhabits and controls.) Melanie, the human side of the duo, is often described as “strong” or “violent,” depending on what sort of mood Wanda is in, and though Wanda herself never once raises a hand in violence, and does contain elements of the weak woman, she eventually discovers a peculiar Ghandi-like kind of strength. It works for her, so I won’t question it.
Of course, no Meyer novel is a Meyer novel without a love triangle- though in this case it’s more of a misshapen quadrilateral, made very confusing by the fact that two of the participants are one body. Melanie’s “true love” despises Wanda for taking her away, even as Wanda struggles with her own affections for him due to the body which she inhabits, and Wanda herself falls in love with another man, who Melanie has to keep herself from sympathy-loving. Needless to say, all of them fight a lot.
This book is a fairly quick read for something of its length (just over 619 pages) and I’d recommend it to romance fans rather than sci-fi buffs, despite its out-there technology and aliens. Twilight fanatics: look, read this. There are better books out there, and this one even has your messiah’s name on the cover. Four stars.