Thursday, May 20, 2010

Location Lit: Paolo Bacigalupi's Bangkok masterpiece, The Windup Girl

I love to read novels about a place while visiting it, and I'm always looking for good ones. You can enjoy a book about Bangkok without having a mental picture of Sukhumvit, or knowing what a soi is, but the pleasure is amplified when you do.

Bangkok travelers, or people following the story of the political unrest there, will enjoy, then, the American short-story writer Paolo Bacigalupi's brilliant first novel, The Windup Girl. You could call it science fiction, but really it falls into the new category of smart, speculative literary fiction that's increasingly making un-sense of the category.

As does your first arrival in Bangkok, the novel starts with overwhelming sun, sweat, a cotton-dampening bath of hot, humid air, and teeming, melty-asphalt streets crowded with vendors of every kind of tropical fruit. That's really what it's like today, but in Bacigalupi's world, set unspecified years in the future, the protagonist is a corporate spy from a big agribusiness company, come to Bangkok to discover the secrets to the Thai Kingdom's outlaw-genetic-code foods.

The action is set in a post-oil world, post-global warming, post-"contraction" when globalization fell apart, a world where power, and the computers and phones and cars that depend on them, is something even the rich and the governments have in preciously small quantities. From there, you plunge into Thai politics, the worlds of spys, slums, refugees and genetically engineered Japanese "wind up" people designed as soldiers or sex toys.

Laying out the premises could make the book sound didactic, but the information takes its sweet, disorienting time to come clear. This was a great book on the level of prose, and also for twisted & surprising views on our hot-button topics. It has a very light touch in terms of references to today's Bangkok, which makes the locations the reader recognizes or suspects might be familiar, more psychologically effective. The genius is in how this transformed, futuristic, barely recognizable Bangkok feels just like the real thing. Read it by the pool at the Oriental, while meditating on the joys of ice and air-conditioning.

Also, there's a Bacigalupi short story online at Pyr books, here. And, people who like the Location Lit concept are directed to the Rough Guides, which have great "Context" sections in the back, recommending destination specific books and movies.

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