“We rest in the hands of a fickle god. He plays on our behalf only for entertainment, and he will close his eyes and sleep if we fail to engage his intellect.”
In Paolo Bacigalupi's imagined future, Bangkok has become a simmering stew pot of paranoia, brutality, despair, and betrayal. Genetic manipulation has brought the world to the brink of extinction. With great advancements also came tragic mistakes. Blister rust, Cibiscosis, the Genehack weevil brought death and famine. The very companies that created these problems are now the companies that the world has to rely on to stay one step ahead of the mutations of their mistakes. Battling for calories is now an all consuming endeavor for a population that has rarely had a full belly. An innocuous cough can start a stampede of fleeing people. Fear is the natural state of mind.
Thailand has become a significant player on the world stage because their leaders had been forward thinking enough to secure a seed bank. This provides the building blocks of future plant stock that can be manipulated to survive the onslaught of mega-diseases. They also secured their own genius generipper who has continued to find ways to grow eatable, disease resistant food. One of the characters sums up how fortunate they are."We are alive. We are alive when whole kingdoms and countries are gone. When Malaya is a morass of killing. When Kowloon is underwater. When China is split and the Vietnamese are broken and Burma is nothing but starvation. The Empire of America is no more. The Union of the Europeans splintered and factionalized. And yet we endure, even expand. The Kingdom survives."
Anderson is a character that could have stepped out of Graham Greene novel. He works for AgriGen a major player in the gene manipulation market out of Des Moines. He is in Thailand under the cover of running a factory. Energy is generated by Megodonts, genetical modified elephants whose brute strength creates joules that keep the factory wheels turning.
Algae is also a main source of energy for the factory and also dangerous to the workers for a change in chemistry can turn algae from a friendly product into a human killer. I have personal high hopes that algae will provide some answers for our own future energy needs.
Anderson manipulates events, trying to grab an advantage that will allow AgriGen a foothold in the seed vaults. He is duplicitous, determined, and willing to be a King maker to get what his company needs. He is not interest in personal gains. He is a crusader who believes his efforts could end up keeping the world safe. Unintentionally he falls in lust/love with Emiko, a Windup Girl, an illegal commodity in Thailand, designed by the Japanese as a pleasure, serving model. She is a hybrid of genetic manipulations that has given her beauty, super human speed and strength, and a subservient matrix that allows her owner to have complete control over her actions. Emiko has also been designed to respond to sexual advances making even the most inept lovers feel like they are providing her with sexual pleasure. There is much more to her if he can be patient.“She is an animal. Servile as a dog. And yet if he is careful to make no demands, to leave the air between them open, another version of the windup girl emerges. As precious and rare as a living bo tree. Her soul, emerging from within the strangling strands of her engineered DNA.”
The power of Thailand is split between the white shirts who represent the Environmental department and the green head bands who represent the department of trade. They have a split in philosophy, Environmental wanting to get away from generipping and the outside influences of farangs like Anderson. The department of trade wanting to embrace the outside world, letting in more goods and giving their people more avenues of generating revenue. The push and pull of the two departments leads to skirmishes and after an unforeseeable act by Emiko they flare into a civil war.
Bacigalupi does a wonderful job of world building. I fell into this brutal world(there are a couple of surprisingly graphic sex scenes), totally swept away by the tide of the plot. He presents a world crippled by environmental disaster without becoming preachy. He did inspire me to learn more about terminator genetics and also to continue shrinking my own environmental footprint. The characters are well drawn. They are motivated by the same desire to survive, but their plans for survival are uniquely their own.
I will end the review with a scene of Anderson in the marketplace."Ngaw. A mystery. She hands him the fruit. Anderson sniffs tentatively. Inhales floral syrup. Ngaw. It shouldn't exist. Yesterday, it didn't. Yesterday, not a single stall in Bangkok sold these fruits, and yet now they sit in pyramids, piled all around this grimy woman where she squats on the ground under the partial shading of her tarp. From around her neck, a gold glinting amulet of the martyr Phra Seub winks at him, a talisman of protection against the agricultural plagues of the calorie companies. He slips the ngaw's slick translucent ball into his mouth. A fist of flavor, ripe with sugar and fecundity. The sticky flower bomb coats his tongue. It's as though he's back in the HiGro fields of Iowa, offered his first tiny block of hard candy by a Midwest Compact agronomist when he is nothing, but a farmer's boy, barefoot amid the corn stalks. The shell-shocked moment of flavor--real flavor--after a lifetime devoid of it."