Windup Girl, The

by Paolo Bacigalupi (2009)

7/10

Probably a 3.5er overall but I’m rounding up just because it’s the best story, sci-fi or otherwise, that I’ve read in a long while (I just checked: since last fall’s Bloodchild and Other Stories) . . . and at a time when I’ve been craving such a compulsively readable tale.

The writing is solid and pleasantly plain. The world is well-drawn and in many respects feels like a sound extrapolation of where we might be headed. The action is tense, adequately frequent and well-written. The characters are memorable, although there’s not one person to truly pull for unless you happen to buy into what I took as the author’s misguided allegiance to technological progress. The evil corporate types get their appropriate and satisfying comeuppance.

There are a couple of plot holes, one of them minor and the other major. Late in the book a second windup is introduced for no apparent purpose other than to tell the reader about windups. Confusingly, Kanya insists she come along in her investigation because “she has her uses” literally one beat before Kanya “can’t think how” she could possibly be useful. Weird.

Worse and weirder, however, is p. 201 when Emiko tries to escape a tenement full of the dreaded white shirts, who will surely “mulch” her if she gets caught. The chapter ends with her getting caught by them, yet the whole ordeal is barely mentioned in her next chapter on p.219. It sort of undermines the stakes in addition to confusing the reader.

My biggest problem with the book, however, is the very ending in which Bacigalupi apparently intends for us to side with Emiko and the “New People,” who it is implied will someday replace natural human beings. If I’m meant to find this unsatisfying then I guess the author succeeded, but if not then it’s an odd tack to take. I’m a natural human being after all, so it would be strange for me to cheer on the being who would spell my obsolescence. It’s even stranger because Bacigalupi is plainly critical of the kind of capitalist, cavalier genetic modification of food that leads to plague and famine.

This sort of thinking aligns with the sort of technology-worship popularized by E.O. Wilson’s On Human Nature, an ideology which is fundamentally misanthropic. (Octavia Butler’s works fall into this category as well, though she looks to the stars for improvement, and not to our own technological prowess.) All of it rests on the absurd premise that humanity is inherently flawed and must be improved upon. It’s absurd because if your premise begins with humans not being good enough, then how can you logically depend on them to succeed at improving themselves?

Beyond the argument’s inherent illogic, I fundamentally reject the idea that we need to improve ourselves. I’m also highly skeptical that we’re even able to without many unforeseen negative consequences. I think humans are pretty damn good just as we are, and it’s clear that we got this way without our own meddling. This obsession with continual improvement and progress is not only one of humanity’s biggest flaws, but probably the number one factor in the world becoming a shittier and scarier place. Would we not be a lot better off if science & tech folks dedicated their efforts to improving our present rather than future selves?

Anyway, yeah. . . not quite in the mood for a full philosophical treatise, so I’ll leave it at “a great story but flawed.” I’d recommend it to fans of sci-fi but only with the condition that they deeply consider the implications of the ending.

 

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