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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Two by Paolo Bacigalupi

After hearing Paolo Bacigalupi's Comic Con interview on NPR, I ordered two of his books:  Ship Breaker and The Windup Girl.

I read Ship Breaker first and enjoyed it; however, I'm not sure it rates as a novel, even a YA novel--more like a long short story or novella.  It was interesting to see some possibilities of a post-apocalyptic world, but the story gives no hint of how this "new" world developed.  Yes, the seas rose, but that doesn't give ample explanation for the situation.

Brief synopsis:  Nailer is an adolescent boy who works for a crew that scavenges oil tankers.  (These tankers have been abandoned after whatever apocalyptic event occurred.)  Live is harsh and basic, the strong prey on the weak, survival is paramount for most individuals.

When Nailer discovers a wrecked clipper ship driven on shore by a powerful hurricane, he thinks he has made a Lucky Strike that will provide the means for him survive and to escape his drunken, abusive father.  What he finds, in addition to the dead crew, is a young girl who has survived.  The girl presents a dilemma for Nailer:  if he lets her die, his chances of making the most of his Lucky Strike are much greater -- if he rescues her, he may lose any chance of a better life.

Although I enjoyed the action, the world Bacigalupi builds seems like a facade.  You know, the kind of Western town in movies that has all the fronts of the buildings and nothing behind them.  The scavenging makes sense in Nailer's world, but the tremendous contrast between the "Corporate" world and the poverty and lawlessness of Nailer's environment is never explained or examined.

dystopian novel.  2011.

The Windup Girl, on the other hand, is definitely not a YA book.  Despite the novel's having won both the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award for best 2010 novel, I can find little to recommend it...unless you enjoy violence and degradation.

Another dystopian novel, this one takes place in Thailand after the whatever apocalyptic event has taken place.  While both Bacigalupi's world building and prose are widely praised, I didn't find either satisfying.  The characters are thin stereotypes and none of them are really likable.  It is a disturbing story and often very slow; sections feel padded with sentences and paragraphs that fail to add anything new or important.  The dialogue is stilted and the psuedo-science of kink springs, etc. failed to make sense to me.

I admire Bacigalupi's attempts (in both novels) to point out some of the dangerous policies of societies and governments, some of the threats and consequences of climate change, and some of the scary practices of big agriculture.  Unfortunately, not much in The Windup Girl worked for me.  This is just my opinion--I know many people love this novel.

dystopian novel.  2011


  1. I haven't read 'The Windup Girl', but I did read 'Ship Breaker' and I think your analysis of it is a fair one - your comment about the facade-like effect of Western towns in movies had me really nodding my head. It was a good book, but not that good. Or so I thought.

  2. Katherine - I wish Bacigalupi had developed this one more. It was a fast read, maybe too fast.

  3. I found the Ship Breaker kind of not my thing, so I have never read anything else from him. Other friends of mine love his books, though.

  4. I have never wanted to read The Wind Up Girl because I have heard enough about it from several people that I don't think I would enjoy the more brutal and depressing parts of the story. I have read some of Bacigalupi's short fiction though and he is a fantastic writer and I loved Ship Breaker. I didn't have the same experience with the world building, I think in part because I had read about the story (on his blog, I believe) and the whole ship breaking part is based on things that actually happen right now. It didn't seem to me such a far fetched extreme from the path the world is on and as a YA book I was glad not to have an enormous amount of world building outside of what was wrapped up in the story. I have yet to read the next book set in this world but it is on my list.

  5. Carl - The Windup Girl was too brutal for me, as well. I wouldn't recommend it, in spite of the fact that many love the novel.

    What I mean about world building on Ship Breaker is that I want a little more background on the different extremes between the Corporate world and the world of the drowned cities and impoverished life along the coast. It doesn't have to be much, even a paragraph or two.

    I also would have preferred more information on the half-men. Both novels include the scientific ability to create creatures out of DNA combined from humans and animals, but no ability to accomplish fairly simple things. Such a contrast of high tech and low tech.

    I also like "new" technology to have a little more feeling of possibility, and the W G certainly didn't provide that. Kink springs providing everything? What are they? If people can manage to create them, why can't they create conventional energy sources and weapons?

    In Ship Breaker, the actual ship breaking, scavenging, and drowned cities made perfect sense given what is happening world wide with global warming and the rise in sea level.

    I've heard great things about his short stories, and Ship Breaker felt more like an expanded short story than a novel.

    Nevertheless, I enjoyed Ship Breaker and liked the characters. Not so with The Windup Girl. :\

    I do like that Bacigalupi addresses problems that the world is facing today, although we are in the early stages. In W G the problems with the Agro corporations, the sterile seeds, etc. is another current concern that interests me. The Seed Banks are something I researched a little after reading another novel.

    Both novels provide a frightening scenario for a project that should be beneficial, the preservation of seeds in case of some apocalyptic disaster.

  6. I had pretty much decided after reading some of Bacigalupi's own concerns over the accolades that Windup Girl was getting that I wouldn't read it, and many others including you now have confirmed the brutality. I know it happens in real life, I guess I just don't need it in my fiction if I can avoid it.

    I understand exactly what you mean about Ship Breaker and don't disagree with you. I just didn't find my enjoyment of the novel affected by those issues and I wonder if it is because I went into it not expecting that out of a YA novel or if that just wasn't where my focus was as I was reading. Its been too long to remember. I suspect we'll get more info about the half-men in the next book as Tool is one of the main characters in it. I need to try to get to it during the next Science Fiction Experience if not before.

  7. Carl - The truth is that I was a lot more positive about Ship Breaker until I read The Windup Girl, immediately following. I know it colored my opinion....

  8. That makes sense. And comparing the two, Ship Breaker was his first foray into YA fiction after having written/published The Windup Girl and I imagine in some ways he was feeling his way around trying to write differently, especially given the more darker tones of some of his adult stuff. It will be interesting if you choose to read The Drowned Cities if you see any improvement in these areas or not.

  9. The Drowned Cities has so much meaning for New Orleans. New Orleans I, that is.

    I ordered both books immediately after hearing Bacigalupi's interview for NPR at Comic-Con. He does a great interview.