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This suffocating indebtedness (along with the fear of terrorism) is the closets the UK population comes to having a collective identity. We hold our breath while a few oligarchs suck in the oxygen, even though we’re supposedly “all in it together” (“it’s up to all of us”).

Today’s author is described on the Zer0 Books website as having previously worked as a “cappuccino frother, data enterer, trainee teacher, cashier, mail sorter, jobseeker, factory drone, warehouse operative, writer, street sweeper, audio tester and care worker“. In my time jaunting around the world between different temp jobs I have ticked off at one time or another almost every single one of the same ‘career paths’, with the exception of trainee teacher and care worker. I think my parents between them held down five jobs in total. I have already had double that number of positions over the past fifteen years or so.

Of course in the 90’s this was described as the bright future of my generation, employees having won the opportunity to change their careers multiple times, upskill, diversify and so on. The idea of long service pensions, health care contributions and emergency leave already seems like a mirage.

Southwood’s discussion as regards the relationship between employees and ‘their’, jobs advances through a series of stages, opening with a critical assessment of worker rights in society – where the notion of a trade, or a job with any sense of ownership has been deconstructed in favour of continual movement between jobs, or the imminent loss of work, a state defined here as ‘precarity‘ – before engaging the reader with the personal perspective of the author as regards living on a meagre wage, having to pay off large amounts of debt and the dissolution of unemployment assistance from the state. As such Non-Stop Inertia is no theoretical academic treatise that remains at a remove from the material. Southwood presents himself as a case-study of how this modern form of personal insecurity is all-pervasive and psychologically detrimental.

At one point Southwood bemusedly comments that writing this book may affect his future job prospects, but then of course there is little likelihood that the jargon-spouting temp agency recruiters he has to meet with will have read it.

The current digital age has produced what is wittily described here as ‘cultural stagflation‘ – continuous stimulation, with no genuine possibility of action. Twenty-first century popular media is designed to titillate and excite, but not engage or challenge. Similarly the workplace is a site of constant activity, but little chance of any sense of achievement. Instead workers are encouraged to compete for positions that will soon be outsourced – “Predictable income, savings, the fixed category of “occupation”: all belong to another historical world.” In an insidious inversion of existentialist psychology employees are told that they must choose their futures, even as their options become increasingly limited – the individual has become a function of profit.

Southwood’s experience as a temp overlap with his having to apply for jobseeker’s allowance. He describes how the Tory government of the early 1990’s redefined the job exchange as a despiriting, compulsory process of constant assessment, one which in turn become increasingly precarious. The era of New Labour continued to carry the ball, increasingly limiting the concept of British social welfare. In the media crime and sundry social malaises are blamed on families who remain on the dole – with the attendant counter-point that working families can barely make ends meet rarely addressed.

Another strand of discussion is how trade unionism and worker’s rights generally are being undercut. The concept of the ‘Virtual Assistant‘, is introduced, in effect an out-of-office P.A. who must compete for assignments from his/her ‘clients’, but has little to no rights. If the V.A. is unable to work, whether it be due to maternity leave, or illness, a competitor simply takes their place. Once again, to be able to work from home is sold as the greatest form of freedom, whereas Southwood observes it as being completely unsupported and unguaranteed employment. The Virtual Assistant is the epitome of temping culture, which threatens to erode the capacity of trade unions to represent their members. After all, if employees can be replaced by short-term workers, the unions have not only lost members, they are unable establish representation.

Rounding off this incisive and intelligently paced critique, Southwood addresses various methods of resisting the debilitating effects of job insecurity. This jack of all trades can now add ‘author’, to his C.V.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

 

She reaches out with a careful finger. The butterfly startles, then allows her to gather it in, to walk it into her cupped palm. It has come a long distance. It must be tired. As tired as she feels. It has travelled continents. Crossed high steppes and emerald jungles to land here, amongst hibiscus and paving stones, so that Kanya can now hold it in her hand and appreciate its beauty. Such a long way to travel.

Kanya makes a fist on its fluttering. Opens her hand and lets its dust drop to the tiles. WIng fragments and pulped body. A manufactured pollinator, wafted from some PurCal laboratory most likely.

Windups have no souls. But they are beautiful.

Five years ago I read Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies, an assessment of our society’s chances of surviving ‘Peak Oil’. Resource wars are no longer some grim prophecy of futurists – they are a increasingly likely outcome for first-world nations with a global reach. Speculative fiction can often play a role in navigating such grim portents. With this novel, the notion of a complete collapse of petroleum economies is taken as a given. What is proposed is a radical alternative that equally boxes in the described society of the future into yet more debilitating conflicts and regimes change.  

In the wake of devastating collapse of crops due to genetically engineered diseases, Thailand was one of the few countries left still standing. The young Queen in Bangkok rules over a much enlarged kingdom, with refugees fleeing religious persecution in China pouring over its borders and American company men attempting to curry favour with the regime by setting up new businesses in a country that has survived civil wars and plague. Anderson Lake is one such man, wandering the street markets of Bangkok examining the fruit on sale that speaks to hidden seed farms, secured away from prying eyes. As a farang he is barely tolerated; as a company man possibly connected to the same enclaves that accidentally released genetically engineered viruses years ago, it is a wonder he has not been killed.

His aide Hock Seng is a Chinese refugee who is juggling one too many schemes in order to survive. He tries to keep Lake happy, while also paying bribes to Thai officials, the white shirts, and skimming off the top for himself. He runs a factory for Lake that specialises in growing algae cultures that can be converted into energy. The machinery is prone to breaking down, there is a danger of rampant contamination and the city’s trade unions prevent him from keeping the workers in line. Still he plots and plans to escape Bangkok, even in the face of growing tensions.

Then there is Emiko, a windup, a genetically perfect humanoid, abandoned by her Japanese creators to the slums of Bangkok. Her life is conditioned by instinctual commands she cannot resist. She is programmed to serve, to seek out an authority figure. Unfortunately there are places in Bangkok that specialize in debasement for the purposes of entertaining farang businessmen and corrupt Thai officials. Her master Raleigh has her perform on stage, publically abused and violated sexually to drunken cheers. When she happens to overhear mention of a rogue genetic engineer hiding out in the city, she is introduced to a man who will gladly pay to hear more – Anderson Lake. He looks at her with a mixture of disgust and disinterest, but she thinks she can see a glimmer of pity in his eyes as well.

Finally there is the Tiger, Jaidee, the famously incorruptible white shirt on the hunt for conspirators within the houses of government itself. He trusts his partner Kanya with his life, but when he confiscates precious carg, he discovers who his true allies are.

There is so much going on in this book, so many overlapping plots, that at first it might appear quite dense. The Windup Girl, however, builds into an epic tragedy, a truly astonishing debut from Paolo Bacigalupi that fascinates in its description of neo-colonialism. At times it resembles an inversion of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner which showed audiences a vision of a future-America dominated by Chinese culture. Then there’s this article from io9 describing how Rian Johnson’s next sf film has received funding for depicting another Sino-futuristic setting.

I found the scenes of Emiko being raped horribly disturbing, but as a whole the book is undoubtedly an astonishing creation.

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