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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.

Watching the Dyalo snipe and bicker had disabused Martiya of the naive notion that tribal peoples would live in peaceful harmony with one another, just as watching the villagers hack down virgin forest and set it on fire for their fields had disabused Martiya of the notion that the Dyalo would live in placid harmony with nature. But as an anthropologist, she couldn’t indulge in such diverting pleasures as blood quarrels. She needed to be a neutral Switzerland, an unencumbered Sweden.

There is an amusing moment in this novel when the father of a family of Christian missionaries, attempting the save the souls of a little-known (and entirely fictional) tribe called the Dyalo from ‘enslavement’, by their pagan deities and spirits, discovers that America is in thrall to a film called Star Wars. This seeming embrace of neo-paganism, in particular the significant phrase ‘May the Force be with you’, strikes him as a revolt against two thousand years of Christian tradition. He comes to this conclusion after reading an evangelical magazine titled ‘Christian Family Alert!’.

I suspect Mr Belinski and I were reading the same magazines sometime back in the eighties, for my grandmother had a subscription to a very similar publication which in turn memorably featured a hysterical broadside against the mystic mumbo-jumbo George Lucas served up in his space-opera/swashbuckler. I became alarmed at the thought that my enthusiasm for the adventures of Luke Skywalker and his friends was in fact a betrayal of my faith. In tears I confessed everything to my grandmother. She snorted in contempt and told me that I read too much.

On reflection, she was quite right, but sadly I never grew out of reading.

Berlinski’s astonishing debut began as an earnest anthropological study based upon his own experiences in Thailand as a journalist. Then slowly mutated into a fictional account of a different Mischa Berlinski, a journalist, in Thailand, who stumbles upon the remarkable life of a woman jailed for murder, who wrote an in-depth anthropological study while she was behind bars.

The story is in effect a murder mystery, albeit a post-modern one, with Berlinski-narrator seeking to explain the circumstances of Martiya van der Leun’s imprisonment. As his fascination with the mystery grows, his relationship with his own partner and any plans for a return to America to find a real career, raise a family, etcetera, begin to drift away.

A large section of the novel is concerned with the proselytising American family he meets in Chiang Mai and their history. The Walkers (a significant family name in American history) have for three generations preached the word of the gospel in Asia, only arriving in Thailand after being forcibly removed from China following the Communist Revolution. David Luke Walker (Berlinski perhaps setting up the Star Wars joke early on in the novel…) was the latest scion, a young man who was gifted with incredible charisma and charm, born to Dyalo culture. After all he had been born in the jungle. The narrator slowly worms his way into the trust of the clan to discover how Martiya van der Leun first met them – and then killed their favourite son under the influence of demons.

This novel manages to parallel the two Western intrusions into native culture quite ably. On the one hand the missionaries have arrived to rescue the Dyalo tribe from themselves; van der Leun comes to study them in their native habitat, hoping to interfere with their day-to-day lives as little as possible. The Walkers continually refer to America as ‘home’, despite only  David’s mother having spent more than eight months at a time there. They also euphemistically insist on referring to a person’s death as having been called ‘Home’. The apocalypse is on the horizon and it is their duty to save as many souls before the Rapture.

There is a wonderful moment when a teenage David, in a flash of rebellion, sneaks into a cinema to watch a screening of Blacula. Similar to Paul Schrader’s experience of encountering film for the first time as an adult, following a sheltered, religious upbringing, the young man is hooked by the silver screen and abandons his faith for a brief time, before his return to the jungle villages, where his fate waits along with Martiya. The scene is beautifully captured by Berlinski. Much of the novel carries a knowing insight into the minds of these characters.

A former manager recommended this book – I am very grateful. A wonderful debut.

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