Sunday 26 August 2012

One Year of Excelsior

This time last year I began writing book reviews for Excelsior. It started as a way to develop writing discipline when I made up my mind to start writing creatively again. I figured that working on book reviews would keep me writing even when I didn’t feel particularly creative. It has worked wonderfully. My writing has improved significantly over the last year and I have made a start on a novel and some short stories.

The whole process has also made me think about criticism and its worth. After all, the Internet has helped make everyone a critic now, for better or for worse. Websites like my own and those linked from my bloglist offer a guide for people wondering just what book to read next or which book to avoid. For readers there is also great value in disagreeing with what a critic has to say about a particular book because it helps to develop their own critical abilities. This is also one of the best reasons for writing reviews – it makes you a far better reader and in my case, a far better writer.

Over the last year I’ve read and reviewed twenty-five books. Some of these I’ve read for the book club I run at Subiaco Library. Most of these I would never have read if it wasn’t for the book club. Although this is sometimes a chore I’ve come to realize over the years that reading books that you wouldn’t normally consider has great intrinsic value. It exposes you to styles and authors that wouldn’t normally come your way. There is also great benefit in reading a book that you don’t particularly enjoy. The critical insight gained can end up being invaluable. There’s also something to be said for a certain level of discipline when it comes to reading. Next time you start a book and it doesn’t appeal to you, keep going because it may just make you a better reader and a better critic.

Of the twenty-five books I’ve reviewed over the last year only two gained my highest rating of sublime. These were Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and John Fowles The Magus. For these two novels it is excusable to wheel out that dead cliché – “work of genius.” Both are brilliantly written and both show just how weighty issues can be approached without resorting to dumbing down or empty cliché. Although the other books featured over the last year were not in the same league, they are all worthy in one way or another. The only book I’d advise readers to think twice about reading is Allan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child; although this book gave me valuable insight regarding just what to avoid in my own writing.

So, another year of reading and writing awaits. The publishing industry may be going through great changes at the moment, but something that I’m sure will never change is the desire to immerse oneself in a great novel from which so much enjoyment and knowledge can be gained. Surely there aren’t many better ways to spend your time? After all, reading and writing helps to both define and to critique humanity, something we must never lose sight of in this age of endless distractions. 

Sunday 19 August 2012

The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi (2009)

Paolo Bacigalupi is hot property at the moment due to The Windup Girl winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards for speculative writing and now he has a new novel out called The Drowned Cities (2012). The Windup Girl is his debut novel after many years of publishing acclaimed short stories.

I started reading without really knowing much about either the author or the book and after a while it occurred to me that perhaps this was a new sub-genre of science fiction and the word Ecopunk came to mind. Once I finished and looked Bacigalupi up I found out that I was on the right track, but it’s actually called Biopunk. Biopunk is dystopian in nature and mega-corporations control the world, but unlike Cyberpunk the dominant technology is centred on genetics rather than computers. It’s a great example of just how influential the likes of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and the other Cyberpunk writers are in this post-Cyberpunk era (that’s how I refer to it anyway).

The Windup Girl is set around 180 years in the future in Thailand. The characters talk about “The Expansion” and “The Contraction”. It’s easy to work out that the former is globalization and the latter was the subsequent collapse of globalization. The world of The Windup Girl is blighted by rising seas, the collapse of fossil fuels and deadly bioengineered diseases and organisms. As a result many plants and animals are extinct. Bioengineered diseases like blisterust, cibiscosis and Nippon genehack weevil are constant threats to Thailand and the rest of the world. Newly created animals such as the giant elephant megodonts are used in factories in place of machinery and the chameleon like Cheshire cats roam the streets, blending perfectly with their surroundings whilst they scavenge for carrion

The Windup Girl presents a beautifully realized world filled with weird and terrifying possibilities that are, for the most part, not too fantastic to exist. I’m impressed by Bacigalupi’s imagination, as there are some great ideas on display in this novel. The narrative is also jammed full of atmosphere, sweat, grit and the stench of the dirty back alleys of a future Bangkok; a Bangkok in which Anderson Lake, just one of the many protagonists, roams searching for lost genetic material. Although the novel features political subplots and can also be seen as a critique of the present and future discontents of capitalism, it’s the notion of genetic tampering that gives this novel its dystopian bite.

There’s an ensemble of characters crammed into this moderately sized book, and even though some of them only have bit parts, they have presence and charisma. There’s a conflicted heroine (of sorts), sinister politicians vying for power with the military, fanatical ‘white shirts’ that protect the nation from outside genetic contamination and suave but slimy traders. One of my favourite characters is Hock Seng – Anderson’s untrustworthy Chinese accountant bent on survival and with his own compelling back-story. Then, of course, there is Emiko, the seemingly fragile engineered Windup Girl abandoned by her Japanese master; she bleeds through the plot like the blood of the Megodont killed in the opening section and ironically she provides some humanity to proceedings.

The writing is tight and well structured and Bacigalupi’s pacing is something to be admired. Even in the slower sections there is enough colour and intrigue to satisfy. It’s refreshing to read a science fiction novel set in South East Asia that also has enough great ideas for it to make a genuine claim for originality. Lets face it, dystopian novels proliferate and it takes something special to stand out. The Windup Girl is certainly not perfect – some of the later sections are too episodic, which slows the momentum somewhat, but this is a minor shortcoming.

Bacigalupi’s vision is certainly disturbing, but what is even more disturbing is that The Windup Girl ultimately comes across as a very possible vision of the future. Such prescience is something that the greatest science fiction offers and The Windup Girl would be an interesting book to read in 50 years time. Don’t wait that long though – read it now.