Monday, September 24, 2012

The Windup Girl and the Transporter

On the one hand, I lately finished reading Paolo Bacigalupi’s Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel. And on the other, I read it on my new tablet, bought in part to ease the growing shortage of book space in my life.

First, the tablet, an ASUS Transporter Infinity. I can’t figure out a way to take a picture of it with its own built-in camera, but here’s a nice picture of one like it, along with the separate and way cool docking station: I found it interesting that there is an assumption on the part of ASUS that anyone who buys such a thing would automatically know how the interface worked. As a technical writer and editor, I was astonished that neither the tablet nor its separate docking station came with any kind of documentation, including something like a QuickStart Guide. Fortunately, I’ve watched enough other people use Android devices and seen enough commercials that I could muddle my way through my first attempts to use it. Though there were interesting paradigm-shift moments such as when I saw that I had a number of applications open and running but could not formulate a plan to close them. It was a good thing that Mrs. Speculator is more conversant with Android than me. There was also the humorous first few attempts to unlock the pad by sliding the lock icon; I discovered that 1) if you slide the lock to the left, you put the tablet in camera mode and 2) if you’re a little patient, the tablet will actually tell you the direction you really want to slide it in to use the tablet without going through camera mode first.

I decided to use a Kindle app on the tablet for ebooks. I’m not really sure I appreciate all of Amazon’s practices when it comes to publishing, but I already have an Amazon Prime account, which facilitated continuing to use their services. Again, there is an assumption that using the app is intuitive. I figured out how to go to the Kindle store and buy my book, and was told it would be delivered to my tablet via WhisperSynch. Eventually, I got an email telling me that it had been delivered…but now how to access it. I would open the Kindle app hoping to see the cover of my newly purchased book on the home screen, only to find nothing. A bit of poking around led me to determine that I had to go to another menu and tell the Kindle to synch itself up with the downloads. And then! I had the cover on the front page.

Reading my first ebook was not the experience I expected. I have not thought so deeply about the reading process since I was taking a class in literary criticism and we were covering the post-Modernists. For example, by default, the Kindle app gives you black text on a white background, simulating the experience of reading a book. But even though there’s a brightness control, the white that the app delivers is far brighter than the white of the paper in a book. So in the case of the first ten pages or so, I spent as much time reading and getting the beginning of a headache with the intensity of the images on the screen as I did fiddling with the controls to get the settings right. Fortunately, I have lately read a couple of books from the 70s with paper slowly turning brown, so I was reminded that sepia might be a better choice than pure white and eventually ended up with black print on sepia with the brightness turned down. Then I went back and forth between horizontal and vertical orientations for a few pages to decide which I liked better, eventually deciding to go horizontal and two columns. I spent some time trying to use the dictionary, only to discover that I had to download the dictionary and then discovering that a lot of the words in my novel based in Thailand weren’t in the dictionary. I guess the built-in dictionary is put on the tablet to accommodate folks who are reading outside of a network, but why take up space on an Internet tool to pack a dictionary when a Web search direct from the page makes so much more sense? Especially when that’s what I had to do anyway to find the meaning of a number of the words in the novel?

I was delighted to discover that the layout of the pages pretty solidly matched the format of a printed book. Having worked in companies where the electronic version of a text was an afterthought to the printed version, I was concerned I would be spending as much for a paperback book for less readability. And because of the intense graphics of the Transporter Infinity, the cover of the book is vibrant and gorgeous, though I really would like to magnify sections of it for detail, mimicking holding the book really close to my face to find a plot point nicely portrayed in the cover art. I know that comic book readers support the magnification of their images, so I’m not concerned about the art for when I start looking at comics with the tablet. It makes me wonder if the combination of a tablet and music might bring about the return of awesome liner notes included with albums.

The tablet is also very convenient: Mrs. Speculator did not wake up at all when I found myself unable to sleep one night and read for about a half hour. No bright lights from the nightstand and perfect readability in the dark. I understand that with the Kindle app, my books will be automatically archived after a certain amount of time passes without them being opened. In the archive, I will have access to them again as will anyone who uses my Amazon account, like Mrs. Speculator. I emphasize being told this because, again, there was no documentation anywhere and I had to search for information, finding forum responses mired with all the dross that goes with them and the report of a friend who also uses the Kindle app. I’m hoping for the best.

In short, I’m becoming hooked; at last I am the 21st century schizoid man that King Crimson used to sing about—I want to read books and hold and smell them but am satisfying myself with getting the latest releases via ebook (outside of a few exceptions like Mieville, Brust, Kay, and Banks).


As for the book itself, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is a real delight. It is set in a not-too-distant future where the combination of the effects of global warming and genetic engineering has visited a catastrophe to the world. Thailand hides behind massive sea walls as it slowly sinks below the world’s new sea level. Genetically modified grains spawn genetically modified diseases, killing grains and people alike. Use of fossil fuels is severely limited and infractions severely punished in attempts to halt the continued rise of sea level and perhaps to reverse it. Symbolic of these ills are the cheshires, domestic housecats originally modified so that they blend in with their surroundings, chameleonlike, as a marketing ploy to sell cats. However, the modification bred true, and the cheshires have replaced the domestic housecats and the feral ones around the world, a vastly improved predator.

Bacigalupi introduces a handful of characters to this setting—Anderson Lake, an American entrepreneur who acts as an agent for a multinational in a country where foreigners, especially Americans, are reviled for the havoc they have brought to the world; Hock Seng, a Chinese immigrant who has come to Thailand in order to escape Muslim fundamentalists and works for Lake as he plots to recoup the shipping corporation he lost in his flight; Emiko, a Japanese “New Person”, a genetically modified human, molded to be the perfect servant and unable to reproduce; and Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, the Tiger of Bangkok, a native captain in the Environment Ministry, tasked with ensuring there are no further incursions of non-native life in Thailand. Bacigalupi’s plot follows them each in their individual machinations to merely survive in this hostile new world that experimentation has created. The characters’ movement throught Bangkok and its environs allows Bacigalupi to build up a picture of a horribly broken world, and as one might expect, the more the reader interacts with the characters, the more broken they appear to be as well.

Emiko is explicitly the windup girl in the title of the novel, and her actions do set off the biggest crisis, a battle for superiority between the Trade Ministry and the Environment Ministry, with all of the expatriates caught between the warring factions and neither side offering them very much support. Emiko struggles against her very nature, having been bred to need to serve even when it goes against her strongest instincts. She constantly fights her own body’s responses to stimuli with varying and ultimately surprising results. Her story is an example of the tried and true plot device, nature versus nurture with the added quibble that her nature has been modified by corporations.

But there is a second windup girl in the novel also—Kanya, the Tiger of Bangkok’s trusted lieutenant and protégé. Slowly, the reader learns Kanya’s back-story and discovers she is not all she seems to be either, fighting her own battle between two masters. While Emiko’s development and conflict drive the opening narrative of the novel, Kanya takes it over in its crisis and drives it to its unexpected and harrowing conclusion.

There is no room for optimism in The Windup Girl. In an analogy of our world today, the problems of Bacigalupi’s world are manmade, and rather than working at solving the issues, the smartest and most powerful people struggle to find ways to profit, to make their own lives that much easier. There are several scenes where foreign entrepreneurs sit on the balcony of a local bar during the hottest part of the day in order to better catch what breezes there may be and completely about their hard lives while the people in the street below suffer and struggle. It would be very easy to strip The Windup Girl of its power and suggest it is an anti-Western novel, but it doesn’t take much close reading to see that the Thais are just as complicit in their troubles as everyone else, despite their blame for the rest of the world.

In a number of ways, The Windup Girl reminds me of Brave New World, with its interest in genetic manipulation and unrelenting cynicism. While the endings are somewhat different, there remains a sympathetic character in both novels who is not in the world of the novel by their own choice. Bacigalupi’s writing is perhaps more accessible than Huxley’s while Huxley’s characters are more fully realized. This is not to say that Bacigalupi’s characters are not fully formed; Huxley’s are just more memorable.

The Windup Girl is a powerful novel, deserving of the Hugo and Nebula awards it has won. It’s one of those novels that we may look back on in a decade or so and recognize as being incredibly important not only for its writing but for its message. It likely should transcend its genre to become something of interest to mainstream readers as well.

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