Thursday, September 22, 2011

Reviews of Reamde and The Windup Girl

I recently finished two excellent works of entertainment writing, both with the potential to contribute more than just a few hours of fun to the reader's consciousness. Here are reviews for Neal Stephenson's Reamde and Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl.

I won't try to summarize Reamde. It's one of those works that the second you start telling someone else what has happened, it sounds preposterous, ridiculous, and absurd. But it all makes sense while you're reading it. Like all Stephenson's work, the writing is of such a high quality, the characters are so interesting, and the events are so thrilling, that he convinces you it's just a lot more fun if you go along with the coincidences than if you spend the whole book questioning their likelihood.

Instead of a summary, I'll give you some keywords to give you a sense of the story; Welsh Islamic Jihadist, MMORPG with shockingly realistic topography and tectonics, Chinese hackers, Eritrean refugee orphan adopted into a mid-west American family, lunatic Russian mobsters, MI6, and the American/Canadian border in the Pacific Northwest. Oh, and radical American isolationists with lots of guns. Oh, and a Boston born NSA agent stationed in Manilla. Did I mention everything that happens, happens because of a relatively benign virus called “REAMDE” that only affects serious players of T'Rain, the aforementioned MMORPG.

The perfect way to read this is probably to just take a week off from work and blast right through it. You always want to know what happens next, not because Stephenson plays cliff-hanger games, but because the characters are so interesting and whatever has just happened in the book was so thrilling and entertaining, you know you're going to enjoy whatever time you spend reading it.

Reamde is not without its more subtle themes. Otherness plays a huge part in the story, as the protagonist, Zula (the Eritrean orphan), is often saved by being a black woman in a situation where she is the only black woman, and the primary antagonist is a black Welsh Jihadist (Yep. Welsh). There's also the basic moral tension between crime and law, present in any good thrillers, as well as Stephenson's usual insightful speculations about technology, society, and economy.

In a perfect world, all bestsellers are of this quality, written with an attention to detail, respect for the reader's intelligence, and actual skill with sentences. I'm sure you've noticed its not a perfect world. Though it is filled with James Pattersons and Dan Browns, we can at least take some comfort in the fact that we have at least one Neal Stephenson.

Catastrophic climate change brought on by burning fossil fuels. A food system destroyed by genetic manipulation and unscrupulous mega-agr-business. Rapidly mutating plagues and viruses. The world of The Windup Girl, as in the best sci-fi, is on of the possible futures to our actual present. The story takes place in Thailand. By shutting themselves off from the rest of the world, destroying invasive species, and burning villages with hints of plague, Thailand was able to restore, to some degree, its indigenous agriculture and create a sustainable economy, based in carbon neutral energy and strict control over their seed stock.

The story picks up when all of that is at risk. Foreign businesses and ambitious members of the Thai government are working to erode those protections, and open the Thai markets to foreign investors and foreign genetically engineered foods. One of the major characters is Anderson Lake, a foreign businessman looking to do just that. Lake works for a major agribusiness based in Des Moines. Under the cover of a kink spring factory that is developing a major breakthrough in energy storage, his major goal is to gain access to the Thai seed bank. To do so, he's willing to put the factory workers at risk of plague and facilitate a military coup.

His opposite is Jaidee, a charismatic former Muay Thai boxer, who is the inspirational leader of the Environmental Ministry, the arm of government that created and enforces Thailand's isolation. Jaidee is brash, idealistic, and uncompromising and as a result comes into conflict with those forces, seeking to undo the influence of the Environmental Ministry. Because he is an uncompromising idealist, it isn't hard to figure out what happens to him.

For much of the book, Emiko, The Windup Girl herself, plays a small role. Windups are genetically engineered humans, generally made in Japan, and because they are genetically altered, they are illegal in Thailand; “mulched” if discovered. When we meet her, and for much of the book, she is working as a dancer and a prostitute.

Bacigalupi does a brilliant job building his world. Just like spending a lot of time living in a foreign country, you pick up the terms. Bacigalupi doesn't go out of his way to explain the terms or the rituals, they just come up naturally and you absorb their meaning, their meaning from the context. It's the best technique for building a complete world without writing a guidebook into your novel.

At its core, The Windup Girl is about societal forgetting, about how as past problems fade from prominence, many forget both their sources and their solutions. In The Windup Girl, Anderson and the Trade Ministry, forget that isolation from the radically globalized economy saved Thailand from the rampant manipulation of the world's networks of life by foreign companies. Certain actions caused the problems and since the problems have been contained, those certain, very profitable for some, actions are being taken again. Sound familiar? Today in the U.S. we've forgotten what lead us to the Great Depression and what got us out of it. The Windup Girl should be thought of with the other great warning novels including The Sheep Look Up and A Canticle for Leibowitz.


  1. Dani's had Windup girl on our desk for a while now. One of her friends let her borrow it. I'll encourage her to read it. How was it referred to you?

  2. I just kept hearing about it at the bookstore. It was a book people mentioned over and over again, so I finally read it.

  3. Windup Girl is also somewhat timely as some of the conflict is between the white shirts and the yellow cards, which in the past four years in Thailand the conflict has been between yellow shirts and red shirts... both equally destroying the image of a peaceful kingdom. Also included is a militant religious group called the Green Headbands, though the militant Islamists in the south of Thailand have yet to foil like in the capitol of Bangkok.