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Blogging the Hugos: Decline, Part 4

[At last, after laying out my wares, turning in turn to Boneshaker by Cherie Priest and Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson, I finally arrive at the final novel in this threesome of Hugo nominees, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. And at last, I hope,bring this mammoth post to some sort of conclusion …]

Boneshaker ends where it begins, in Seattle; away from the poisoned city things are, presumably, better, but Priest’s individualist characters can find some sort of equilibrium even amid the gas. Julian Comstock ends in Europe, which we barely glimpse but which seems to have escaped not only the religious chaos of America but also the worst effects of the technological failure. Both are, therefore, distinctly and specifically American catastrophes, the American exceptionalism of 1950s science fiction neatly reversed. The Windup Girl, however, portrays a global catastrophe. The novel begins and ends in Bangkok, and never strays from that city. We do not see America (though it featured in some of the short stories associated with this novel), but what references we do pick up suggest it has fared better than some places, worse than others, in this post-oil world.

The Windup Girl feels both like and unlike the other two novels. Like Julian Comstock it is set in a post-oil future, but the political and moral shape of this world is very different. Like Boneshaker it circles around debased technology with a distinctly steampunkish sensibility (there are airships); but the steampunks really love the fire-breathing glamour of their devices (remember the steam train enthusiasts I mentioned earlier), and there is no love for the tightly-wound springs that power this novel. The treddle-operated computers, the murky algae tanks, the springs wound by genetically-modified mammoths are tiring, filthy, inconvenient and dangerous. Practically the first thing we see in the novel is the devastation wrought when a device for winding springs snaps. This is not a world where anybody is getting on, most people are barely getting by.

And if both Boneshaker and Julian Comstock use the Civil War as their base point, The Windup Girl has more recent and more literary references. What we get is a cross between the depression-era fiction of writers like John Steinbeck and Graham Greene-type fictions of weary colonials exhausted and defeated by the alienness of the world around them. The difference is instructive. Even when war is not centre stage, both Priest and Wilson present things as a battle, their characters more concerned with fighting than with comprehending their world. There is war in Bacigalupi’s novel, but it is off-stage, except for one brief flare-up at the climax that is concluded so quickly that it is clear Bacigalupi has no great interest in writing about it. The Windup Girl, rather, is a novel in which economics is the great driver, the characters pay attention to the world because they have to find a way to make a living from it.

Yet in overall affect, The Windup Girl seems to sit squarely with both Julian Comstock and Boneshaker. In each, we see our world falling apart around us, we see grim survival triumph over heroism, we see optimism for the future snuffed out. The nature of the catastrophe may vary, but there is little doubt that catastrophe is all around and there is little point in hoping for anything else.

In The Windup Girl this is personified in Hock Seng, the old Chinese clerk who is first seen peddling away at a computer in the office of Anderson Lake. Over the course of the novel we discover that he was once a rich and successful businessman in Malaysia, until nationalist rioting destroyed both his business and his family. Now he is a yellow card alien, tolerated but not exactly welcomed in Thailand, with the possibility that his right of residence might be revoked at any moment, or that nationalist rioting might flare up here. He lives alone in a slum, dependent (as all yellow cards are) on the goodwill of a crime lord; he works in a demeaning position for someone he despises, he defrauds the company when he can, he hordes the cash he manages to amass in unsafe hiding places, and he schemes to regain some of his former wealth and power. But he remains essentially powerless in a position where all security and certainty have been stripped from him. It is a situation in which all the characters in the book find themselves to some degree or other.

The title character, Emiko, is an artificial woman from Japan, the home of advanced technology. One of the common characteristics of science fiction that goes back as long as I can remember is the notion that whenever the world falls from technological grace, any pocket of advanced technology will be looked upon with fear and suspicion. I’ve never been entirely convinced by this supposition; it seems to me that, particularly when there is a memory of a recent technological golden age, such pockets of advanced technology might actually be looked upon with wonder and desire. Nevertheless, this is one of those givens of the genre, so we don’t ask too many questions. Emiko arrived in Bangkok as the secretary and sexual companion of a rich Japanese businessman, but when he returned home he abandoned her. Like Hock Seng, her legal position in the country is tenuous at best, and the local people could turn against her at any moment. She earns a precarious living putting on a humiliating sex show in a local nightclub, where the club’s owner pays enough in bribes to the local police to keep her safe. Still she dreams of escaping to a rumoured community of windup people, and when she meets Lake he seems to offer a potential escape.

Our third major character, Lake, is, like Hock Seng and Emiko, a foreigner whose status is questionable. At first he appears much more secure than the other two: a rich American who has recently taken over a struggling factory making springs, he has government contacts, he spends his days drinking with other ex-pats and his evenings in seedy clubs. But he is a spy for a genetics company wanting to steal the secrets of Thailand’s seed bank, an enterprise that inevitably puts him in danger. The efforts of Hock Seng to steal from him and his growing obsession with Emiko both destabilize his position, but it is his own Machiavellian ambitions that eventually prove his undoing.

Against these there are two main Thai characters, Jaidee, an upright policeman whose espousal of traditional virtues exacerbates tensions between branches of the Thai government, and Kanya, his lieutenant and eventual successor, a more morally dubious character who still comes to uphold his virtues. It is important to recognize that none of these are bad characters, though all have questionable traits; but in the circumstance each comes to use the others as way to their own economic or even physical survival. What we see in The Windup Girl is how technological collapse (the end of oil) is inextricable from political, social and economic collapse, and that this in turn directly affects the moral and physical well-being of every individual caught up in it. As the world falls apart, old moralities and beliefs have to be subject to constant revision.

All three of the novels, therefore, concern a world in which America cannot be the dominant culture. Physical decay stands in for moral and cultural decay, the loss of American economic might implies the loss of military might (only Julian Comstock directly addresses the notion of America as a military power, but all three imply that America can have no military standing beyond its own borders). The Windup Girl suggests that, in biological terms, the rest of the world might have more reason for hope than the United States; Julian Comstock specifically shows the rest of the world as politically and economically more stable and secure than the United States; Boneshaker displays no awareness of the rest of the world, though this in turn indicates a country turned inward upon its own misery.

Morally, Boneshaker offers only two villains, one of whom has been written out of the story before the novel even opens, the other is almost pantomimic in his villainy. All other characters, though they represent shades of moral worth, are essentially old-fashioned Western individualists. This is an America wracked by an unending Civil War and, within the specific locale of the novel, ripped apart by an irruption of the supernatural, but in essence it remains true to American conceptions of its own worth. It is only the two novels set in the future that directly question this worth. In Julian Comstock all of America is complicit in its own downfall because of its allegiance to religious authority. In The Windup Girl, moral standards have changed in the changing world circumstances, but those circumstances have in turn prompted a re-evaluation of American self-worth; manifest destiny is clearly a thing of the past.

In effect, what these books propose is that the past is a model for the future. It may be the past of the Civil War or the past of the great depression, but those traumas are the shape that coming Americas must take on. The tragedy that provides the trajectory of Wilson’s novel is, on a macro level, what all these novels foresee for America: a downward slope must come, and come soon. It is not a new perception for American science fiction, but it is interesting that half of the novels shortlisted for the genre’s leading popular vote award should all share this vision.

3 thoughts on “Blogging the Hugos: Decline, Part 4

  1. One of the common characteristics of science fiction that goes back as long as I can remember is the notion that whenever the world falls from technological grace, any pocket of advanced technology will be looked upon with fear and suspicion. I’ve never been entirely convinced by this supposition; it seems to me that, particularly when there is a memory of a recent technological golden age, such pockets of advanced technology might actually be looked upon with wonder and desire.

    I suspect both will apply. On the one hand, people would be attracted by the relative luxury such enclaves represent, and want to get in. On the other hand, since the enclaves couldn’t possibly let in everyone who wanted to come, they would have to be exclusionary, and that is going to promote a culture of mutual suspicion.

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