Archives for posts with tag: dystopian

The Windup GirlPaolo Bacigalupi has crafted a superb post-apocalyptic political thriller. The Windup Girl is set in a future Thailand where global warming has resulted in dangerously high sea levels – whole cities have been swallowed by water and levees are all that protect Bangkok from being completely flooded. Many crops have become extinct through plague and genehack weevils, due to calorie companies genetically modifying crops. Illnesses then passed from the infected crops to humans – blister rust, cibiscosis – have become worldwide epidemics. These epidemics are now largely under control but any new outbreak threatens the entire world with irreversible destruction. If that wasn’t enough the world’s fossil fuels have run out, and all power is generated using simple kink springs.

Anderson Lake secretly works for AgriGen, an American calorie company, searching for food crops thought to long be extinct now occurring naturally in Thailand, in order to copy them, bioengineer them a little, and then trademark them. The calorie companies are back to their old tricks. And they’ll do anything to gain access to the Thai seed bank – their collection of untouched, natural crop samples. But the Thai government keeps it secret. They don’t trade with the outside world. They’re terrified the cycle of bioengineered crop plagues will start anew, and this time the world won’t recover.

Hock Seng works for Anderson Lake’s cover company, a kink spring factory, slowly embezzling from Lake, biding his time until he can steal the company’s new kink spring technology and make a fortune on the black market.

White shirts police the city and the docks, including the fearless Captain Jaidee and his unsmiling partner Kanya.

And in the midst of all this a windup girl named Emiko lives. Created by the Japanese she was abandoned in Bangkok. As a feared and disgusting bioengineered New Person she lives as a sex slave, an object to be fetishised and used. Until Anderson Lake gives her reason to hope.

The Windup Girl is positively bursting with characters and story, all running somewhat parallel to each other yet intricately connected. It’s enjoyably complex – packed full of intrigue, dirty business dealings and even dirtier politics. It’s just like an SF version of Boardwalk Empire.

According to Time Magazine, Paolo Bacigalupi is William Gibson’s worthy successor. This might sound like sacrilege but I’ve read Neuromancer and while it is edgy and a classic of its genre, actually it probably marks the genesis of its genre, it was a hard slog. I found it slow and difficult to follow – features of Gibson’s future world were mentioned in passing and never even remotely explained.

Whereas, Bacigalupi’s debut explains to his readers the new world he’s created without either dumbing it down or being overly explanatory. There’s no turgid exposition getting in the way of the story – characters explaining to other characters things that they should know already if they really lived in that world. Bacigalupi reveals information gradually, exactly when you need it. I feel the same way about Neal Stephenson. Slight disclaimer: I’ve only read The Diamond Age so that might not be true of any of his other novels.

Good and evil don’t exist in the world of The Windup Girl. There’s only protecting your own interests and everyone has their own agenda. The military versus royalty, AgriGen siding with whoever will be most useful, double agents whose only loyalty is to themselves. As such, Bacigalupi doesn’t really offer a character to get behind. At best there’s Emiko as the most sympathetic. But you can’t even rely on her actions to be consistent. Loyalties shift, morality confusingly swirls and eddies.

There was one little thing that was irritating me – Bacigalupi’s repetitive descriptions of the signature jerky, stutter-stop movements of windup people. Again and again I’m told how those movements mark Emiko out to be reviled. Yeah, I get it, I get it. It all seemed a bit heavy-handed and unnecessary. And yet the more Bacigalupi pointed it out, the more I cringed at the thought of her difference. Suddenly such a small, innocent point of difference becomes contemptible. So, perhaps that repetition is a necessary evil.

In The Windup Girl, Bacigalupi has created a completely absorbing dystopian world – frighteningly possible and intoxicatingly dangerous.


Super Sad True Love StoryAgeing, ugly, earnest, lover of books Lenny Abramov falls in love with young, beautiful, damaged, naive Eunice Park. Super Sad True Love Story is the story of their sweet, messy love affair. The point of difference here is that it’s set in a dystopian near-future. The world Lenny and Eunice live in is very familiar, a heightened, over-the-top version of now, and it’s scarily real. The obsession with eternal youth, having to have the latest technology, using text language and acronyms in speech, wearing revealing clothes, America’s financial collapse – all of this is happening right now. Gary Shteyngart has mined these present trends and problems for absurdity.

Facelifts and Botox aren’t enough, in Shteyngart’s future High Net Worth Individuals reverse the ageing process using nanotechnology. Instead of iPhones, Facebook and Twitter there are äppäräts; devices for communication and online shopping, everything we use phones and computers for now except more invasive. They constantly monitor their wearers’ health, Credit ranking, mood, hotness, personality, everything you can think of. Instead of people saying LOL and OMG as if they’re real words, in the future of Super Sad True Love Story you’ll have to contend with TIMATOV (Think I’m About To Openly Vomit) and calling each other slut, playa and duder, as well as rampant illiteracy. Instead of midriff tops and short shorts there are nipple revealing bras worn in public and transparent Onionskin jeans worn without underwear.

Obsession with eternal life is all through the novel. Lenny works in Indefinite Life Extension and is continually plagued by thoughts of his own mortality. Everyone acts like stereotypical teenagers in a bid to recapture their youth and remain relevant. Lenny’s middle-aged to elderly (no one actually knows how old he really is) boss Joshie is the worst example of this. The middle-aged clinging to their youth is nothing new but Super Sad True Love Story really captures the dangers and horrors of a nation that never matures.

Super Sad True Love Story is a more playful 1984, not only is the government keeping tabs on everyone but through their äppäräts everyone watches each other. It’s just as terrifying as it is farcical (just the idea of everyone’s äppäräts ranking hotness whenever you go to a bar would make me want to become a hermit). I’d call Shteyngart prescient but so much of what he describes is beginning now. It made me think, is this really what the future holds? It sounds like hell to me. And that’s only the social and cultural issues.

Shteyngart has taken every problem the United States is currently having and has turned the volume up, including political and economic instability. This part isn’t so funny. America is poor, powerless, and on its way to being a military state. The government is always watching for signs of disloyalty. But Shteyngart’s sense of the absurd still comes through. The American government uses a cartoon otter in all its propaganda. There’s the otter in a sombrero trying to jump into a dinghy with the tagline ‘The Boat Is Full, Amigo’. The otter reappears, only this time he’s Americanised, a symbol of the government, unassuming and friendly yet passive-aggressively menacing. He’s a recurring motif, an embodiment of Larry’s paranoia that the government is after him.

Lenny Abramov is a relic from a dead world. He feels at home in Italy, a place steeped in history, decay and rebirth, more so than in America, the land of Retail and Media. In a culture where everyone amounts to nothing more than a collection of data Lenny wants a real human connection. Yet, he too has become caught up in the youth mania. This internal conflict draws him to Eunice, also conflicted about her place in the world but very much a product of her time. She’s bought into the obsession with extreme consumerism and the importance of youth.

Lenny is pathetic and cringe-worthy, even a little bit creepy, and his relationship with Eunice is incredibly awkward. So much so that I thought to myself, can I endure an entire book of this? But compared to everyone else Lenny is a symbol of truth and humanity. I learned to understand and appreciate him. Super Sad True Love Story is Eunice’s story as well. She’s not just Lenny’s shallow love interest, she’s still hard to love though. Eunice toys with Lenny but then she really loves him, she wants to get a shallow Retail job but then she wants to help homeless people living in Central Park. She’s pushy, dismissive and bratty but she’s also compassionate.

Super Sad True Love Story is funny, shocking and sad. It’s relevant and topical, a book you’ll feel compelled to tell people about. The observations Shteyngart makes about life and where the world is heading feel so spot-on. I just hope that he’s wrong.

Cloud Atlas spans time periods, covers genres as varied as science fiction, thriller and farce, and showcases a range of storytelling techniques including epistolary, diary and interview. There’s Adam Ewing’s nineteenth century diary of his sea voyage from the Pacific to the United States, composer Robert Frobisher’s letters to his friend Rufus Sixsmith in the 1930s, 1970s journalist Luisa Rey uncovering a conspiracy, publisher Timothy Cavendish’s strange ordeal, the testimony of fabricant Sonmi ~ 451 set in a future Korea, and the post-apocalyptic tale of Zachry, a farmer living in a primitive society in Hawaii. Before reading it I found the novel’s unusual structure of tenuously linked sections a bit off-putting. I’ve never been much of a fan of short stories, which is what Cloud Atlas sounded like to me, but I ended up loving it despite my misgivings.

David Mitchell has a real talent for capturing characters’ voices and personalities. In each section the tone and style change completely. Sections shift from comical to dramatic and thrilling. Many parts are suffused with humour and wit. I found, given the staggering differences in style and content, my favourite parts of the novel were more pronounced. I wished some stories would last for longer. The futuristic settings were my personal favourites, but then, I’m a bit of nerd. It’s technically dazzling, accomplished and stylish writing. And through it all Mitchell gives a knowing nod to genre conventions he borrows from. In the thriller segment, ‘Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery’, Rufus and Luisa are talking about Alfred Hitchcock’s Charade:

Charade’s the one where the plot swings on the stamps?’

‘A contrived puzzle, yes, but all thrillers would wither without contrivance.’

The plotting is magnificent. Each story is complex, full of enough detail to fill six novels, and all are wildly different. Yet they each form a tapestry. A comet birthmark is a recurring detail, letters or diaries written in previous stories are read by later characters, characters reappear. And thematically the stories are connected. Mitchell deftly exposes humanity’s lust for power and greed throughout the ages, culminating in the central post-apocalyptic tale. Cloud Atlas’s various parts are further brought together by questions about reincarnation, religion and spirituality. I enjoyed pulling together the threads from each story, and noticing the little similarities.

For all the complexity of plot and experimentation with style and language Mitchell’s writing isn’t strained. I was worried it would be self-indulgent, experimentation for experimentation’s sake, but thankfully it largely appears effortless. In the post-apocalyptic ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’’ Mitchell reinvents the English language for a new age, indulging in linguistic gymnastics, playing with words, spellings and punctuation.

I wanted to tell Pa’n’Adam ’bout my eery adventurin’ but a yarnin’ is more delish with broke-de-mouth grinds, so hushly-hushly up I hoicked my leggin’s an’ I crept up on that meatsome feathery buggah…an’ I dived.

The story is the richer for it, so inventive I couldn’t help but be impressed.

Mitchell does have a detached writing style. All but one story is a first person account but emotional resonance is often relegated to the background. But it’s so entertaining I’m willing to forgive him. The strength of Cloud Atlas lies in the exhilarating storytelling. In ‘Letters from Zedelghem’ Robert Frobisher writes of his daring new musical composition, ‘Revolutionary or gimmicky?’ and I think Mitchell knows that is exactly the type of question that could be asked of Cloud Atlas’s format. Revolutionary is probably taking it a bit far, but it unquestionably surpasses gimmick. Cloud Atlas is ambitious and unique but not at the expense of its sense of adventure.

The film version of Cloud Atlas is out in Australia in February next year so I’ve only seen the trailer, but so far I’m not sure I like the look of it. Visually it looks stunning, but it seems like the directors are trying to beat us over the head with the idea of reincarnation, of souls meeting over and over across time, by using the same actors to play a variety of characters (with different genders, races and ages). I never pictured Mitchell’s concept taken so literally, and I don’t think it’s necessary. Especially since special effects makeup generally manages to make the wearer look strange and grotesque. Films have had amazing special effects makeup for decades for horror movies (look at movies like The Fly and The Thing) for this very reason, while old-age makeup that doesn’t completely distract remains an elusive proposition. And don’t even get me started on makeup changing gender and race. Oh well, I’ll just have to wait and see.