I was a big science fiction fan as a teenager, though I don’t think I’d credit that with choosing a scientific career, but once I was spending all my days (and nights) in the lab, I didn’t read any more science fiction. I got back into this genre a few years ago when I belatedly discovered the new wave of cyberpunk writing from the 1980’s. While the glory days of cyberpunk have now faded, the injection of energy into the sci-fi genre has persisted, and Paolo Bacigalupi is one of the inheritors.
The Windup Girl presents a dystopian vision of a blighted future when human history is defined in two periods, the Expansion and the post-energy crash Contraction. Without fossil energy reserves to fight them, humans are struggling to survive on a much hotter Earth devastated by plagues of both animals and plants. Most species have disappeared and the few humans that remain use genetic manipulation in a desperate struggle to stay ahead of rampant plant pathogens constantly threatening to eliminate the last remaining members of the species. Calorie wars and energy starvation, both personal and industrial, are a constant threat. Slavery is illegal but banks are allowed to own up to one third of a person, mortgaged in order to survive their debt to the multinational calorie monopolies — AgriGen, PurCal, U-Tex. Crops are known by their version numbers as each year’s new variant is produced to attempt to stay ahead of devastating diseases such as blister rust. One family which has survived relatively unscathed are the nightshades — chillies, auberges, tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco.
This is a book rich with ideas. Economically, the battleground is between globalisation and the hyperlocalism teachings of Niche theology. Much of the science is wacky, e.g. the thermodynamics of energy generation and storage. And there are much better writers out there than Bacigalupi (turn to Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House for a tour de force nightmare of nanotechnology terrorism, for example). But the ideas in The Windup Girl are worth the read. Let’s hope the more benign version of our biotech future published by Annals of Botany is closer to reality than Bacigalupi’s version.
Warning: This book contains strong sexual content which might upset some readers — be warned!