Book Review: The Windup Girl

Title: The Windup Girl

Author: Paolo Baciqalupi

Genre: Sci-Fi

Read: Jan 5-9, 2011

Summary: Interesting Science, mediocre Fiction.


This novel won the 2009 Nebula and tied for the 2010 Hugo. It’s set in an approximately 100-200 years-from-now dystopian future Bangkok ravaged by gene engineered diseases. Fossil fuels are nearly exhausted and society eeks by on “megadont” (gene hacked elephant) and human power.

At first I found this intensely gripping, as the depiction of the future world is crystal bright and highly novel. The prose is fantastic, bordering on slightly literary. The problem is that the story has a lot of characters, five or six main points of view, and I found it very hard to care about most of them. I only really liked Emiko, the gene hacked whore/slave looking for a better life. The American gene thief was okay too. The rest of them I could hardly focus on enough to follow their rambling monologues. Once the relative novelty of the world ground down a bit, I just couldn’t keep myself interested in what was happening. There’s plenty of plot, but it’s moderately byzantine, and I just didn’t care.

Because books are all about the characters. Contrast The Windup Girl with something like Song of Ice and Fire (which I need to write up, but is being adapted into an HBO series). The plot and world in that book are intense, but Martin makes you care for all (well most) of the characters. The Windup Girl has a lot of repetitive rantings. The elderly Chinese guy for example goes on for about two pages in his second chapter about his distrust of banks. Sure this was supposed to instill the sense that he no longer trusts any institution (for good reason), but it just felt self indulgent. The seedy scenes with the titular character in sort of future Patpong where cool though, albiet disturbing.

Let me get back to the world, as this is the biggest strength of this book. The author clearly spent some serious time in Bangkok, and the  foreign, yet vaguely possible future was pretty damn good. I don’t really buy the relying on springs for power, and there’s very little impact here of either nanotech or computers, both of which I think will dominate the 21st century. Still, it was pretty cool. There’s a serious element of “environmental preachy” between the lines, which I suspect is a factor in it’s award winning status. Award gives love a leftist cause. Not that I’m not pro-environment, I’m just not a “causist.” The book reminded me of Neuromancer and Diamond Age in that they described really cool and consistant worlds, but had inadequate character development. Diamond Age in particular is pretty darn boring once you get over the world (which is great). Two many characters, no reason to care about them, opaque and weird motives.

Personally, I think authors should focus tighter on character in these “new world” type books. For example, Consider Phlebas worked for me. People bag on it’s story, but at least it focuses fairly well on a particular guy’s adventure, and the world is amazing. There’s only so much you can do in one book, and a totally new world is a lot. Occasionally someone managed both, like one of my all time favorite novels, Hyperion, but brilliant as that is, even it still suffers from switching the POV so often. But boy does he work some serious pathos into a number of them.

Book Review: Across the Universe

Title: Across the Universe

Author: Beth Revis

Genre: YA Science Fiction

Read: Jan 10, 2011

Summary: Great read. Reminds me of books I read 30 years ago.


A couple months ago one of the book/writing blogs I read featured an article about first chapters that included one from this book. It was unpublished at the time, but I liked the first chapter enough to pre-order the book on Amazon. Liked it enough to actually read it yesterday when it came in the mail (one day before it was supposed to and the Kindle version wasn’t out yet — so for the first time in a little while I read on paper).

I knew I’d liked the first chapter for a reason. Besides the fact that it (the first chapter) featured a naked seventeen year-old girl, this was a fun book. And no there isn’t much sex in here — at least not for the characters that matter.

And the reason this is a good book… drumroll please… the characters. Particularly Amy, the female lead.

Superficially this is fairly old-school Science Fiction, slanted a bit younger than adult, almost like Citizen of the Galaxy, Home from the Shore, or For Love of Mother-Not (boy is cover design today 1000x uglier than it was in 1980!). Worth a 2 minute diversion:

Left the old one, the right is new. Which would you pick? Personally, I hate photography on fiction covers. I like COVER ART. Call me old-school. Anyway.

Across the Universe (not to be confused with the movie of the same title), is about a girl who joins a generation ship as cryogenically frozen cargo (the ship will take 300 years to go to it’s colonial destination) with her parents, but is accidentally woken early (alone) to find herself amongst a very strange society. The crew has been left to run the ship for centuries, and well nothing stays the same, certainly not human society over the course of generations.

The science here isn’t the most innovative, but it is consistant and easy to grasp. I didn’t totally buy the society and all it’s premises. But it didn’t really matter. The book is told in double first person view point, from Amy’s POV and that of the young future captain of the ship (simplified explanation for review purposes). The POV’s are very good, and stick tightly to single interwound storyline. The classic device of having a newcomer (Amy) works well to make the experience more visceral and personal, and this ties us as a reader into the story. It’s also worth contrasting this with a more “mature” Science Fiction novel I read the day before, The Windup Girl (review HERE), which although Hugo and Nebula winning, and possessed of a MUCH more elaborate and interesting SciFi world, just isn’t that fun to read. As the two main characters are literally the only people on the ship their age, they are fairly obviously in it together. I like the “forced” relationship device.

Again, because the character narrative is too fragmented. I like character. I like narrative. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Science Fiction, I’ve read thousands of them. I like elaborate worlds. But they’re nothing without the glue to hold you there.

Now my small beefs. The book was too teasy on the sex. There was sex flying all around, we should’ve had some with the protagonists! I’m old school that way too. 60s, 70s, and 80s SciFi had lots of sex.

And the last 20% of the book started to get that we-have-reached-the-big-reveal-and-now-it’s-all-going-to-feel-a-little-forced stage that many “big reveal” books have. I had this same beef recently with the otherwise perfect Dead Beautiful (review HERE). Still, I read Across the Universe in one sitting, literally, and I enjoyed it the whole way through. I love when this happens — fairly rare as it is for a reader as jaded as I am — it reminds me that there’s still good writers out there.