This is the world portrayed in the Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel by Paolo Bacigalupi entitled, The Windup Girl. I bought this book at the airport in Minneapolis last August when Donna and I were making our little trip to Rhode Island. I wanted something to read during the long flights and Donna found this book for me. I quickly became engrossed in it, though it has taken me some three months to finish. That's just because I've been busy with the day job and my work on A Single Step and this website. Otherwise, I would have finished it quickly. It's actually easy reading and thought-provoking.
It's most interesting aspect, and greatest strength, is the future world it describes. Bacigalupi doesn't specify a date for his story, but it's obviously not too far into the future. Most of the action is set in the city of Bangkok, Thailand. Bangkok is a city of human masses huddling in the shadows of crumbling high-rises. Crumbling, because there's not enough power to maintain the climate controls for the upper stories, so they tend to fill with squatters who tolerate the heat and lack of facilities. The book is like that--showing familiar places and things, but twisted from familiar uses because of the world's loss of cheap energy. Bacigalupi describes devices and vehicles in ways that indicate a workable, but degraded technology: kink-spring scooters, "the whine of high-capacity springs unleashing," coal-fired tanks, methane cooking fires, and spring-guns that shoot spinning razor blades. Bacigalupi's depictions are skillfully done and I suspect will be close to the way technology devolves.
The story's other strength is its characterizations. The characters are struggling to survive in a hard world dominated by greed and sociopathy. People do that today, but in Bacigalupi's world, they don't have the delusions so much. They know they are ruled by greed and their only hope is to just survive. The elites are struggling as well to hang on to their power. It's harder for them to do that in a world of dwindling energy, and that struggle is typified in the western corporations' struggle to keep their monopoly on the food supply in Bangkok. The local government fights them by stealing their formulas for producing genetically modified food so that they can produce their own. The locations of their seed banks are state secrets that the corporations want to find and destroy or control.
The characters involved in these conflicts are jaded and unsympathetic. In fact, there's not really a sympathetic character in the whole story. All of them are either driven by their greed or weighed down by forces of greed above them that they cannot control. Little compassion is evidenced in anyone's interactions. The closest to a sympathetic character is Jaidee (Bacigalupi had to have been thinking of Jackie Chan), the captain of the security force known as "white shirts." He maintains a good humor in spite of all the politics he must deal with and even has a sense of transcendance over the miseries of life in his relationship with his family. His love for his wife is the one instance of real love in the story, buried beneath the dark characters and machinations of the rest of it. This spark of love doesn't prevail, though, and that's a major theme in the story. People's hopes are trashed by a reality run by sociopaths. Jaidee sums it up when he says, "Clinging to the past, worrying about the future...It's all suffering."
While the story is rich in its depiction of place and characterization, it's weak in plot. The plotline that begins the book sort of evaporates, and the contentions between the various government and corporate groups don't quite reach the point of a driving plot. It's more like snippets of plots that form a snapshot of a space of time in a future world. While there's value in that, I'm not sure it would translate well into a movie or TV drama without some major revision.
Overall, Mr. Bacigalupi has written a very good story that masterfully extrapolates current trends, especially regarding genetic manipulations, and shows us the kind of world they can lead to. Having read it all, I would give it three out of five stars. My earlier judgement of it as excellent was based on the beginning plotline and my enthusiasm for the author's depiction of the future world. If the plot was stronger, I would have given it a fourth star.
The Windup Girl is a good read, especially if you enjoy viable depictions of the future state of humanity with a dark and cynical edge.