Archives for posts with tag: Nebula Awards

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.

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He heard a voice, the voice of the buffalo man, calling to him on the wind, telling him who the skulls belonged to…

The tower began to tumble, and the biggest bird, its eyes the blinding blue-white of forked lightning, plummeted down toward him in a rush of thunder, and Shadow was falling, tumbling down the tower of skulls…

I’d wanted to read this for such a long time. Neil Gaiman has garnered a lot of praise for being macabre, funny and truly unique. And American Gods, as my particular Gaiman choice, is a fantasy steeped in mythology but still grounded in the real world. It sounded like a combination of everything that I love. And I wasn’t disappointed. Gaiman has created a soulful, ferocious novel that fans of fantasy will love.

The premise of American Gods is that gods (and piskies and jinn, among other supernatural creatures) exist in physical form all over America. They’ve been brought into being by immigrants who believed in their old world gods so much that when they came to America they brought the gods with them. Thor, Loki, Anubis, Thoth and more are all alive, living off people’s belief in them. But people don’t believe like they used to. Now they worship new gods; gods of television, media, and technology. There is a war brewing between the old gods and the new. The old are fighting for relevance in an age largely devoid of belief; no one makes sacrifices in their names or maintains altars to them anymore. While the new gods know they lack any history or culture. As easily as they outstripped the old gods in power their power could be usurped by something newer, something more exciting.

Against that background ex-convict Shadow is offered the job of bodyguard to the mysterious Mr Wednesday. Shadow follows Wednesday as he gathers together the ancient gods of America to recruit them for the coming war with the new gods. Wednesday believes war is inevitable and in order to gain the advantage the ancients must strike first. The gods are larger than life, and grand ideas like the American dream and mortality are tackled, but the focus is on Shadow’s journey, from the ordinary world to a world populated by gods and folkloric inventions. It’s Shadow’s perspective as a human amongst gods that lends poignancy and believability to Gaiman’s outlandish tale.

American Gods is a literally mythic novel. Gaiman has mined Norse, Native American, ancient Egyptian, West African and Slavic myths. The main storyline is intersected with vignettes that recount stories of gods; some in their homeland, some of their present lives in America, and others of how they found their way to America. Many stories have seemingly nothing to do with the larger plot, but the mythology enriches American Gods with gorgeous layers of meaning. Every time a new name was mentioned I felt like running to find out exactly which god they were in case their myths would expand on the character in the book. It’s the kind of book that rewards looking deeper, a book that you can reread and find something new, a book that stays with you.

As I read the start I thought, this is so wondrously imaginative but very weird. Where is this all going? But I became hypnotised by the stories and characters and the writing. And then it came together for me. The vignettes, asides and dreams are all very bizarre and tortuous but when taken as a whole American Gods has its own internal logic and a plot that really does make sense. Parts that seem to completely diverge from the central story appear again later, it all connects. I was distracted by the strangeness at first but despite first impressions it’s very tightly plotted in addition to being a terrifyingly beautiful chimera of a book.

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.