My grandmother reads food labels to see if they contain any genetically modified products. I used to laugh at it. Now, after reading The Windup Girl, I'm tempted to take a closer look at the food labels myself.
Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl is a bleak and depressing story set in the future run by calorie monopolies, where genetically modified products and manufactured foodborne plagues have wiped out the foodchains, wars are waged for precious seeds, and quarantines for food-borne diseases are a must. Calories are precious - a hilariously sad concept in the modern obesity-epidemic world where calories are our worst enemy, if you believe TV ads. Genetic engineering is not limited just to food - there are genetically modified humanoids as well, viewed as property in some countries and abominations that need to be destroyed in others.
"We are nature. Our every tinkering is nature, our every biological striving. We are what we are, and the world is ours. We are its gods. Your only difficulty is your unwillingness to unleash your potential fully upon it."
The Windup Girl raises a question common to sci-fi novels - how far can science go before it becomes threatening? To which lengths can people take playing God? On one hand, the scientific advances in medicine and agriculture are necessary to make our lives better, to feed the ever-expanding population, to cure the ever-aging population. On another hand, the eventual impact of these scientific advances is unknown, and will it be too late when we figure it out? Will it be too late when the genetic weapons and other scientific advances find their way into the hands of companies greedy for immediate profit? It is already happening, let's not kid ourselves, but will it eventually destroy the world as we know it? Or is the future change as portrayed by Bacigalupi a part of evolution, a part of the strongest-survive doctrine?
The doctor waves a dismissal.
“But you die now because you cling to the past. We should all be windups by now. It’s easier to build a person impervious to blister rust than to protect an earlier version of the human creature. A generation from now, we could be well-suited for our new environment. Your children could be the beneficiaries. Yet you people refuse to adapt. You cling to some idea of a humanity that evolved in concert with your environment over millennia, and which you now, perversely, refuse to remain in lockstep with.
Blister rust is our environment. Cibiscosis. Genehack weevil. Cheshires. They have adapted. Quibble as you like about whether they evolved naturally or not. Our environment has changed. If we wish to remain at the top of our food chain, we will evolve. Or we will refuse, and go the way of the dinosaurs and Felis domesticus. Evolve or die. It has always been nature’s guiding principle, and yet you white shirts seek to stand in the way of inevitable change."
'What is natural?' is another question of this novel. Again, it resonates with the present-day obsession-fad with everything 'green', organic, sustainable, unmodified, 'natural'. What can we reject as unnatural? IS there even such a notion? In Bacigalupi's novel, the genetically modified 'windups' are viewed as something less than human, an abomination, a soulless property - because they are test-tube created, engineered, unnatural. But is it ever fair to make such a distinction? The knee-jerk response is 'no'. But we already live in the world that denounces certain lifestyles, certain preferences, certain viewpoints as 'unnatural' - and uses that as an excuse for discrimination and unequal treatment. Is is protecting the 'natural' or blatant discrimination? Depends on your viewpoint, I guess. In the world of genetic destruction that Bacigalupi created, such horrifying treatment of the windups is perfectly understandable to the surviving society but terrible to us. Would many of our conventions based on our ideas of natural and unnatural seem just as horrific? (I'm afraid they would, by the way.)"
“My body is not mine,” she told him, her voice flat when he asked about the performances. “The men who designed me, they make me do things I cannot control. As if their hands are inside me. Like a puppet, yes?” Her fists clenched, opening and closing unconsciously, but her voice remained subdued. “They made me obedient, in all ways.” And then she had smiled prettily and flowed into his arms, as if she had made no complaint at all."
The style of this novel is oppressively bleak. There is nothing uplifting, nothing cheerful; even the events that may lead to hope and satisfaction are only hinted at, and we don't know whether they will ever happen. The badness is palpable, the goodness is hinted at. This is not a novel for a leisurely read. This is not a feel-good story. It is a story that keeps bringing you down and throw you into a depressed mood. And yet I loved it, every page if it. I loved that the bleakness made it so realistic, and, more importantly, made you think - because it's thinking that makes you human. I love that there were no easy ways out of the situations, and yet little glimpses of simple humanity were so heart-warming, even if not always resulting in anything tangible. I loved the absence of info-dumps, and Bacigalupi's obvious respect for the intelligence of his readers, and his refusal to spoon-feed us the information. I loved that there was never a black-and-white approach to anything, including the main characters who are as deeply flawed as you can ever imagine. I loved how, despite my attempted refusal to go any deeper into this hopeless world, something kept bringing me back to this story day after day after day.
I loved this book despite the bleakness and the complete lack of the fell-good factor. I highly recommend it, especially to sci-fi fans. 4.5 stars. This book is a true gem!
"We are alive. We are alive when whole kingdoms and countries are gone. When Malaya is a morass of killing. When Kowloon is underwater. When China is split and the Vietnamese are broken and Burma is nothing but starvation. The Empire of America is no more. The Union of the Europeans splintered and factionalized. And yet we endure, even expand. The Kingdom survives."