Thursday, February 16, 2012

All Wound-Up: Criticisms of Paolo Bacigalupi’s 'The Windup Girl'

     Everybody has an opinion, and, thanks to the rise of email, texts, tweets and instant messages, that opinion can be all over the blogosphere in seconds. That doesn’t mean we have to lend them much credence.
     When it comes to reviewing a book, the minimum requirement ought to be that you actually read the whole book, not stop after three pages or 20 or 80. If you can’t manage to finish the book, that’s fine, that’s what free will is all about, but you’ve forfeited the right to “review” it.
     If you’ve stopped after finding a factual error, you can point that out, impugn the author’s research or thoroughness, even suggest perhaps the author lacks intelligence, or honesty, if you believe the error is intentional. 
     If you stop because a philosophical point offends you such that you cannot continue, you may write about that, but it’s not a “review.” 
     If the work is fiction, you aren’t even allowed to impugn the intelligence, integrity or decency of the author because you can’t know if that’s what the author personally believes or espouses, and you can’t be sure the author doesn’t refute or demonstrate the error of that point later on.
     You can even disagree with the book on the basis of a disputed interpretation of “fact,” such as that Edward De Vere, the earl of Oxford, actually wrote the plays ascribed to William Shakespeare, so long as you acknowledge at the start that you are an Oxfordian; if readers disagree with your premise, they can stop reading and move along, or choose to be irritated and continue.
     What’s put this topic in my mind, and now on this blog, is The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. I thought it was one of the finest science fiction novels I’ve read in the past five years, possibly longer. It’s also one of the most feted, winning all of the major science fiction awards for the year it was published, as well as earning a spot on Time magazine’s top 10 fiction books of the year. A vocal minority of critics, however, takes extreme umbrage with the book and its author. 
Cover art photo from Nightshade Books
      The Windup Girl is set in a future Earth with depleted oil resources, affected by global warming and genetically modified (GM) food plagues. Energy and uncontaminated food are therefore in short supply. Bacigalupi explored this world in a couple of his earlier short stories (collected in Pump Six and Other Stories), one set in the U.S. and one in Asia. For Windup Girl, Bacigalupi (who majored in East Asian Studies and traveled in Asia) moves the action to Thailand. In interviews, he’s explained this choice: Thailand is the only nation in Asia that was never  colonized by the West. Also, it is below sea level, so would be faced with tremendous difficulties if the ocean levels rose (in the novel, they built dams).
     Bacigalupi explores this world with multiple characters, chief of whom are:
     Anderson Lake is a Western “calorie man” and operative of AgriGen, a Western GM company. He’s there purportedly to run a kinetic spring factory (one of the odd things about the book is that one of the main power sources is from tightly wound springs, coiled by GM elephant-type creatures called “megadonts”), but actually to find uncontaminated food sources to exploit (the GM companies engineered the food plagues so people would have to buy their resistant GM seeds, but the plagues mutated and got out of hand), in particular Thailand’s seed banks. He’s the first character we meet.
     Tan Hock Seng is a Malayasian expatriate who used to be a wealthy business man in his home country, but is now an undocumented worker and manager of the spring factory.
     Emiko, the windup girl, is described on the publisher’s website as “an engineered being, creche-grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich.”
     Kanya Chirathivat is a member of the Environment Ministry, charged with protecting Thailand from contamination by outside food sources that might spread the GM plagues. She is promoted to head of the ministry when Lake’s employers persuade the government to eliminate her predecessor, who was a bit too zealous in his duties.
     This is a complex story, without a traditional “hero” per se, just people trying to survive under difficult circumstances, succumbing to expedient but immoral means at times. The story is about the struggle for each character’s soul, Thailand’s soul, and the world’s.
     To what do the Windup Girl heretics object? With some, it’s the science (they don’t believe the springs are realistic or credible), or the politics (“Global warming propaganda!”), but the vast majority of the dissenters find fault with a Western writer setting his bleak future novel in Asia, making the windup girl herself a sort of android geisha, and to the character of Anderson Lake, a white Westerner, who (since he’s the first character we meet) is seen by some of them as the viewpoint character. A fair number of women object to the rape, too, stopping just short of saying no man should write about women being raped.
     One especially vituperative and infantile blogger (but with a large vocabulary), who goes by the name “acrackedmoon,” blasts Bacigalupi for many reasons, including that the supposedly Thai language excerpts in the book aren’t correct or even intelligible, but also for his general depiction of Thailand. The blog name is Requires Only That You Hate, and it’s not clear to me if the name refers to her, her readers or her targets, but she’s certainly hateful. She frequently uses all caps, so it seems like she’s shouting. Her hate is directed not only at Bacigalupi but at anyone who liked the book, particularly if they accept its depiction of Asia without extensively researching it or talking to Thai and Malaysian people before deciding if they liked it, or in any way disagrees with her opinion:
     “Bacigalupi is praised throughout the seething mass of suck that is SF/F fandom for his imaginative, authentic portrayal of Thailand. Nobody, not a single one, has ever contested this: it’s emblematic of how thoroughly the view of my country and culture has been shaped by condescending expats, “correspondents” and those gap-year backpacker scum. This is where I’m going to state right off that I judge harshly anyone who subscribes to this opinion regarding The Wind-Up Girl, since it shows that you have little clue about Thailand and have no interest in finding out more, but feel at liberty to pronounce how something is authentic and wonderful and culturally rich anyway: just like Bacigalupi you are a supercilious tourist, an ignorant outsider, and always you will remain so. You are not learned, you are not worldly, you have not a single solitary idea about anything and for this you should feel not at peace with yourself but deeply, painfully, incredibly ashamed every minute of every hour.”
     Wow. That’s despite the fact that this takes place in the future, and many of the “errors” she objects to could have been caused by or during the interim, and that it is a novel, not nonfiction and definitely not a documentary. She may have some valid factual criticisms, but she isn’t really trying to persuade fans of the book; she’s trying to bully them. She says she is of Thai birth and descent, and therefore anyone who’s Western has no right to challenge her criticisms (the old “ ‘Shut up,’ he explained” argument). She isn’t trying to reason, just to reach out to like-minded haters.
     If Bacigalupi’s Thai is inaccurate, I’m disappointed, but, by itself, it doesn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the book.
     Other critics are less incoherently angry, but still upset over the oddest things.
     Jaymee Goh (“Jha”) at Beyond Victoriana was livid that the Western “calorie man” was examining a fruit and didn’t know what it was called, when she clearly recognized it from the description as a rambutan. (Well, that was the point, that he didn’t know, and finding uncontaminated and unfamiliar foods was his job.) 
     Also, having been told the book was steampunk (it isn’t, although it shares a few iconic elements with steampunk, including a dirigible), Goh was puzzled as to how this alternate history version of the world came about in the 19th century (that’s when most steampunk is set).
     Jha also objects, as an Asian and as a woman, to the depiction of Thailand:
     “I hate it when authours do that to the culture they are writing whilst not belonging to it. It is one thing to do it for a dominant country like Britain or America, because there will be many, many positive depictions of them to compensate for other purely negative depictions. Thailand does not get much exposure by way of literature …”
     Again, this is a future fictional Thailand, and it’s not such a negative portrayal. The world has gone to hell, and Bacigalupi has portrayed how that affected the U.S. in an earlier story. Thailand has fared better, and the Thai people in the book are mostly presented positively, except for a few foreign devils and collaborators.
     Karen Burnham at SF Signal objects for what seems to me a far sillier reason:
     “How does this post-apocalyptic Thailand illuminate Bacigalupi’s message? If we are meant to be shocked and dismayed at the sheer quantity of abuses, on levels of sex, gender, power, class, race, ethnicity and any other form you can think of, why not write a book about people living in these conditions today? Why not write non-fiction, or make a documentary?”
     In the comment section, Dino Mascolo rightly objects:
     “At this point in the review Karen is no longer talking about the book that was actually written. And the only answer to this, in my opinion, is to say, ‘If you think a book like that should be written then write it’. The rest of the review is excellent, even though I disagree with it.”
     And “February Four,” a Malaysian, commented at Good Reads that he stopped reading the book fairly early on for a nationalist reason:
     “Here is my biggest problem with this book: the name of my country is MALAYSIA. Not Malaya.
     I hadn’t noticed that while reading the book, but is that seriously his “biggest problem” with the book? That would be like me reviewing a book titled “Steven Bitsoli, the Plagiarizing Terrorist,” and saying my biggest problem was that they spelled my first name Steven.
     For the record, in an interview with Bacigalupi in Electric Velocipede, quoted at SFF World (I haven’t seen the actual interview), Bacigalupi said he set the book in Thailand because “I’ve been to Thailand several times. One of my early trips stuck with me enough that I couldn’t get it out of my head. When I was thinking about writing the book, I set it in Thailand, and then tried to move it elsewhere because I was daunted at the task of writing about a country where I didn’t have enough grounding. I ended up doing a lot of research, spending some more time over there, and honestly, still feeling like I didn’t have enough grounding. But, you know, writing is an act of hubris. So I went ahead anyway.”
     As provincial and strange as I find many of the criticisms, Niall Harrison at  Strange Horizons sums it up well when he wrote of the The Windup Girl:
     “It is written with a feral conviction, and it provides fertile ground for discussion of many kinds, by many kinds of readers. There is little in it that, like Emiko, will not yield a different interpretation from a different perspective, and little in it that does not compell a reaction from a reader.”
     What do you think? Let me know. 

3 Comments:

Blogger Anth said...

Nice sum-up of the criticisms of the book. I ran across February Four's review on Goodreads a few days ago and found it quite silly. I haven't quite finished The Windup Girl - I'm about 200 pages in - but as it spirals towards the climax, I find it increasingly fascinating!

As an aside, have you noticed how some people refer to the setting as an AU, and some refer to it as a post-apocalyptic novel set in the future? I think it's post-apocalyptic, personally. Do you know if Bacigalupi said which it is?

May 4, 2012 at 11:31 AM 
Blogger Stephen Bitsoli said...

Bacigalupi has said that it's not "steampunk," and that he hopes to influence young people to prevent his fiction's future, so I'm confident he meant it as post-apocalyptic. That apocalypse is caused by global warming, reduced conventional energy supplies and genetically modified diseases that killed people and crops, but not nuclear war which I found refreshing. Thanks for posting.

May 4, 2012 at 1:21 PM 
Blogger Sea Wasp (Ryk E. Spoor) said...

" When it comes to reviewing a book, the minimum requirement ought to be that you actually read the whole book, not stop after three pages or 20 or 80. "

No, actually, it shouldn't, unless your review will involve talking about failings of the book which are somehow rectified in later parts of the novel -- possible in some cases, of course.

I'd say you do need to read some PERCENTAGE of the book before you know enough about it to be able to write a review beyond "I couldn't finish this" -- say, 25%, maybe. Depends on the length of the work and if it's part of some other greater work, too. But at some point you can easily have gained enough knowledge of the book, the characters, the plot, and the writing to say "you know, I've got enough to talk about, and I don't need to keep beating my head against this wall any more".

Yes, you then run the risk of missing out on that revelation which would change the book for you, but in all honesty, I've only seen that happen a few times for a few reviews; in most cases, there's nothing after the first quarter or maybe half of a book that's going to change your mind about the book as a whole very much. (About the only example I can think of personally is the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Donaldson; the last 20% or less of the third book changed the way I viewed the protagonist and the rest of the series significantly.)

The same is true of things like TV series; no, I really DO NOT need to watch all 7 seasons of Whatever Hit Series to decide whether it's worth watching or to review it effectively. One or two seasons will more than adequately let me evaluate the thing.

September 4, 2014 at 9:20 AM 

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