Thursday, October 30, 2014

What We're Reading: Award Winning Speculative Fiction

Imagine our world in the 23rd century. What will it be like? Will something like Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the 23rd century, as seen in Star Trek, be the reality? Will mankind learn to embrace diversity and no longer judge based on appearance? Will we create/discover solutions to our energy problems and find ways to feed the millions of people starving on our planet? Will humanity become less concerned with wealth and acquisition, more interested in bettering ourselves and our neighbors? Or will humanity remain essentially unchanged? Will we continue to be bigoted xenophobes using finite planetary resources with abandon until they no longer exist? Will we ignore global changes in climate until cities are swallowed up by rising oceans? And will a small portion of humanity continue to pursue wealth at any cost, even if it means millions will die as a direct result?

When the global calamities struck, Thailand closed itself off from the rest of the world. When the Thai people were plagued with cibiscosis (an almost virulent form of cancer), and the plant life was hit with blister rust (which destroys any plant), entire villages were burned to prevent the diseases from spreading. And while the inhabitants struggled to survive, the island itself was under siege by the rising seas. The city of Bangkok was saved by a series of seawalls and levees that protect it from the higher ocean levels. While these actions saved the Thai people from many of the disasters--both natural and man-made--that ravaged the rest of the planet, they also sheltered them from the technological advances that developed outside the island nation. In fact, many of these new technologies--like the genetically modified, bioengineered “individuals” created in Japan as surrogates for the waning numbers of younger Japanese--are shunned by Thai society.

While a minimum of trade and contact with the rest of the world has been tolerated over the years, a shift is beginning in the Thai government. There is a new tolerance for outsiders, a greater yearning for the technological benefits offered from outside influences. And Thailand, from the outside, is again a tropical paradise with seed and food stocks as yet unsullied by disease. There are rumors of a huge seed bank that would provide years of source material for genetic scientists racing to stay ahead of the biological terrors they have created. While most of the population on the island is too focused on mere survival to be too concerned with this new tolerance, it has split the government soundly, with tensions rising between the opposing factions. And the tenuous balance that has been reached between the two may be upset by Emiko, one of Japan’s bioengineered humans, the titular “windup girl,” who may become the catalyst for the civil unrest that will alter Thailand for decades to come.

In The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi creates a relatively near future and projects where our world may end up if we continue rampaging down the paths we have chosen (and from which we refuse to deviate). Fossil fuels will be depleted, genetically modified foods will corrupt our food supplies, and other genetic modifications will result in new types of bigotry and slavery. It is a harsh world, and existence is bleak. The divide between the “haves” and the “have nots” has expanded to an absurd level. For all but the very few, existence is a struggle. Bacigalupi uses Thailand as a microcosm to illustrate how broken our world can become, by asking the toughest “what if” questions that speculative fiction can ask. The Windup Girl is a tough read! But while relentless, it is also engrossing. The characters, while not necessarily appealing, are fascinating. And the issues raised through the telling of the story may leave readers questioning their choices long after they’ve finished the book.

The Windup Girl won the Hugo, Nebula, Campbell Memorial and Locus Awards in 2010.

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