I have to say I was more than a little skeptical when I saw critics hailing Paolo Bacigalupi as a worthy successor to William Gibson. But it only took a few pages of The Windup Girl for me to realize that my doubts were unfounded as I was hurled into a chillingly realistic new world of chronic food and energy shortages, rampant plagues and environmental disasters, and an evil cartel of Midwestern seed companies brutally imposing their biotech IP monopoly throughout the globe.
Add in a small but hardy band of gene rippers fighting to resist this monopoly, a corrupt but independent Thai bureaucracy determined to protect its sovereignty, and a supporting cast of genetically modified elephants and cats, and you have all the elements of a brilliant story.
And that doesn’t even include the windup girl herself: Emiko, a genetically engineered “girl” designed and built in Japan to be the perfect office assistant, who is cruelly dumped by her Japanese boss when he leaves Thailand and ends up as a novelty act in a Bangkok brothel.
What is most alarming about this novel is that the seeds of the nightmarish scenarios it describes are already being planted and - even with very limited scientific knowledge - you really don’t have to stretch your imagination far at all to believe them.
As a result of the cracking of the genome, innovation in genetic engineering is growing at a rapid pace and a huge IP land grab is already taking place as companies test the limits of current laws by, for example, trying to patent genes themselves.
Thankfully, so far their attempts have been unsuccessful; but these are just the first skirmishes in what will be a long and bruising war over gene-related intellectual property that will make current high-tech industry patent battles look like child’s play.
And just as bugs occur in software and spawn a multitude of viruses, it’s a pretty fair bet that they will also find their way into genetically engineered seeds and plants – with potentially devastating consequences such as plagues that wipe out global crop supplies.
But don’t let such depressing thoughts stop you from reading The Windup Girl. It is an absolutely wonderful book that not only raises important issues about the direction our world is heading in but is also filled with an exciting plot, memorable characters, and beautiful – almost poetic - prose.