Book Review: THE WINDUP GIRL

TheWindupGirl_PaoloBacigalupi

Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
On the surface, this book looks diverse. It’s set in Thailand, and at least two of the viewpoint characters (Lieutenant Kanya and Emiko) are not only people of color but also women. Lieutenant Kanya is also queer. I read this book because it was a high-profile well-respected award-winning diverse science fiction book. At least, this is what it purports to be.

This is actually a case of diversity-gone-wrong. Anderson Lake, a White cis-het man, is the dominant POV and the most developed character. Thailand is largely seen through his eyes, and the rest of the cast exists to add color and spice to his story. This is a case where, in spite of the fact that Anderson Lake is one of the few White characters in the story, basically all of the people of color suffer from tokenism. They are painted in broad strokes, and those broad strokes are guided, unfortunately, by stereotypes.

The Windup Girl is one long diversity fail.

Review:
The environment is in shambles. Espionage in the 23rd century, at least as embodied by Anderson Lake, takes the form of swiping the location of a Thai seedbank. Along the way, we are introduced to Emiko, the titular Windup Girl, a Japanese New Person sex slave, and Lieutenant Kanya, a policewoman embroiled in some very complicated politics.

It is a setup that makes for an interesting book. And Paolo Bacigalupi is a good writer. But the book fails, and it fails because there is actually very little that is new here. The spec fic stuff in it is just bells and whistles, but the ideas are actually just rehashes of Orientalist male fantasies that have been around for centuries.

This is not a book about biotechnology or Thailand. This is just another book about how an East Asian woman (Emiko) seems so foreign to a White man that she appears soulless, but that she hold immense and disruptive sexual appeal to him anyway. And, of course, she is bred to be submissive and obedient. Name a trope related to the fetishization about Asian women and it’s here, but it’s played completely straight.

Honestly, the only reason I gave this book two stars instead of one was Lieutenant Kanya. She appeared on the page as a queer woman of color with at least some interiority, and she was a reprieve from the unrelenting Orientalist assault that was the Anderson Lake-Emiko storyline. Like Emiko, Kanya is not free of stereotypes: she is a butch lesbian who is humorless and who ultimately ends up alone1. But, hell, at least Kanya got some interesting things do to plot-wise. At least she wasn’t, quite literally, a lab-grown sex-slave for a White man to ogle who played into harmful stereotypes rather than dismantling them.

It was strange reading this book, because it was so well-received. There are times when you read a book and it’s truly like the rest of the world is reading an altogether different book. Yes, Bacigalupi can construct a nice sentence. Yes, thinking about a world populated with dirigables and armed genetically enhanced elephants is pretty cool. But the titular character2 is a damsel in distress in the worst possible way; Emiko’s storylines start antiquated and continue to be so throughout the book. Bacigalupi has nothing fresh or new to say about her. This book is far from feminist or intersectional.

I expect more from fiction. As a reader on the margins, I demand more from fiction, especially well-regarded fiction. Well-regarded fiction should treat its vulnerable, exploited, marginalized characters with at least a modicum of respect. They should be granted a shred of agency.

2 stars

1Because Lesbians Can Never Be Happy

2That the title is the slur used against the New People really sets the tone for Emiko’s storyline in hindsight.


Want posts like this delivered to your inbox? Sign up for my newsletter!

Book Review: NIKO

Niko_KaytiNikaRaet

Amazon | Goodreads

Notes on Diversity:
This book is packed with diversity. It is Diverse with a capital D. The main character is a take-no-shit suffer-no-fools Black teenager, and most of the people around her are other people of color, too: brown folks, East Asian people, South Asian people, they run the gamut. There are kickass queer characters. There are characters with disabilities. Class issues are on display. Diversity is truly firing on all cylinders in Niko.

Honestly, the author’s attention to issues of diversity in both the characters and the worldbuilding is what moved this from a 3 star to a 4 star rating. It wasn’t only that diversity was present, but how it was woven into the overall book: there is great nuance present here that shows that Kayti Nika Raet thought long and hard about how diversity in fiction ought to be represented. The racial and gender diversity, for example, was presented without comment. The issues of disability became plot threads, things to dissect. Very well done.


Review:
FTC disclosure: I received a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

Harmony Niko is seventeen years old and trapped in a nightmarish post-apocalyptic wasteland full of pseudo-human monsters called Slithers that want to eat her and acidic rain that will kill her if she does not find shelter from it. She is responsible for keeping herself and her two younger brothers alive. But while out on a foraging run everything falls apart–she comes back to find her dilapidated house in flames, her youngest brother dead, and her remaining brother missing. She wakes up in Amaryllis city, now part of a circle of Slither killers.

Once in Amaryllis city, Niko’s world falls apart. Things she took for granted–that Slithers can be easily killed with the right weaponry and good luck, that clean water is precious and must be hoarded–are suddenly called into question. Niko struggles to find her place in the Rose Circle, the group of Slither killers who have adopted her, while trying to process all the new information thrown at her. At the same time, she forms a plan to get back outside Amaryllis and find her lost brother.

Kayti Nika Raet anchors the plot on Niko. As an author, she places all her eggs in one basket. Niko as a character is fully realized, possessing a broad range of emotionality and a strong, driving voice that carries the narrative forward. Niko is intense, observant and suspicious. She is shaken and vulnerable and ferocious. She is a lone wolf and a caretaker. Raet writes Niko with lovely subtlety, letting her grow and stretch over the course of the book. Niko at the end of the book is very different than she was at the beginning. She is still very much herself, but the course of events has marked her, and she is changed.

It is probably obvious that I connected to Niko’s character. Every beat of Niko’s character felt true for me because I was so much like Niko at eighteen: lost, full of bravado, failing an even more lost younger sibling, coping with unnamed and unrecognized PTSD. Raet’s writing captured a resiliency and a woundedness that is utterly complex, at once strong enough to keep going and also weak enough to be self-destructive. And, at the same time, the book is full of science fiction conceits that are intriguing. The hints dropped about the weird, haunting, body-horror Slither monsters are not resolved in this book, and are definitely interesting enough to keep me hooked. I’ll be picking up the next installment, Harm.

Most of the other characters lacked Niko’s complexity, which was one weak spot in the book. Malik, one leg of a very light love triangle, shows some depth, and as a set Norm and Lo were definitely interesting, but most of the other characters blended together. Perhaps as an extension, there are scenes where the action is somewhat unclear. Raet’s writing is typically very crisp, but sometimes I had to reread sentences to glean what happened when several characters were interacting around Niko. A less dedicated reader may have skimmed or skipped those sections altogether. One section where this happened actually turned out to be important plot-wise, but I initially missed who had upset who.

Bottom line, though, I really, really enjoyed this book. It was a fast and brutal and brilliant read, just like Niko herself. When I found out there were three other books in the series already I wanted to clear my schedule and read them all back to back.

4 stars





Want posts like this delivered to your inbox? Sign up for my newsletter!

Book Review: REDBURN

redburn cover

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I am a Melville nerd. I am a big enough Melville nerd that I have the last line of “Bartleby the Scrivener” tattooed on my arm. I am a big enough nerd that reading Moby Dick wasn’t enough for me–I followed it up with Redburn.

Here’s the thing: Redburn is an early effort that’s passable in its own right, but really doesn’t prepare you for the genius gamechanger it’s laying the groundwork for. You just don’t see anything like Moby Dick coming based on Redburn. Which is not to say Redburn isn’t a good book, or an enjoyable one, or one worth reading (especially if you, like me, are struck with an incredibly geeky urge to go all completionist and read everything Melville wrote). But it does mean that reading Redburn after reading Melville’s legitimately more famous and better-regarded books is a peculiar experience.

To just take the book on its own terms, devoid of context or history or knowledge of what comes after, Redburn is at its heart a tale of a boy just coming to terms with the fact that his view of the world, and in particular his understanding of it as a fair and just place, has been shattered. It’s a pretty standard story of innocence lost and adulthood gained, told in hindsight by an older version of Wellingborough Redburn himself (and isn’t that a hell of a name?*) who seems slightly embarassed at just how naive he was way back in the day. This theme is nested throughout the book, starting with the economic collapse of his father to the inherent unfairness of life on the sea, to the inherent unfairness of poverty he’s first exposed to in Liverpool. The scope of the book gradually grows, like going from the innermost matroushka doll to the outermost one, which is a neat little trick on Melville’s part and rings very true for anyone who’s grappled with forging his or her own worldview in adolescence.

And the writing is lovely. Here, like in Moby Dick or “Bartleby,” Melville is telling you a story through someone else telling you a story. And one thing that keeps me coming back to Melville time and again is just that: that he tells you a story. The writing here is intimate and immediate, like you’re sitting in a comfortably overstuffed armchair with Redburn and he’s recounting his youthful exploits to you — just you — over a cup of tea. In fact, it’s a little bit purer here in Redburn than in anything else I’ve read by him. It’s got more scope than “Bartleby” by virtue of its length alone and unlike Moby Dick, where Ishmael himself starts to fade in and out of the narrative, Redburn is always front and center. It’s Redburn telling Redburn’s story (as opposed to the rather elderly gentleman telling you about Bartleby or Ishmael telling you about the Pequod) and Redburn, luckily, has the wit and grace as a reflective narrator to carry it.

But if I’m being honest, I think the only people who would be willing to read Redburn and enjoy it are people like me who have already signed on for the Herman Melville Experience once and don’t mind coming back for more. And since that’s the case, the truth of the matter is that Redburn is most interesting to read in the context of Melville more broadly. In Redburn, you see what is essentially the first pass at themes and archetypes Melville will use to much greater and deeper effect later on. In particular, Jackson reads like a more malicious and less conflicted version of Claggart. And Redburn himself reads as a terribly naive and less observant version of Ishmael. Perhaps Ishmael ten or fifteen years before he set foot on the Pequod. Redburn, like Ishamel, is more educated and more refined than the others on his boat, and Redburn (like Ishmael) finds himself falling into very close, very fast (and very homoerotic) friendships with foreigners as soon as he gets the chance. As in Benito Cereno, Melville’s ambivalence towards America — its grandeur built on foundations of injustice, its insularity, its conformity that can (as far as Melville seems to be aware) only be escaped by shipping out to sea — becomes a dominant theme.

And more than that, Redburn gives a great deal of insight into Melville himself. If Ishmael is more or less an idealized version of Melville, Redburn is clearly who Melville thought he once was. The parallels between Redburn and Melville are striking (so striking that my copy of Redburn has an appendix which notes chapter by chapter aspects of Melville’s own first voyage that he fictionalized for the book). Redburn is a book about a young man whose education and experiences lead him to sea totally unprepared, one who has to adapt without any clear guidance, and who in the process finds life at sea both utterly freeing and constraining, and really that young man is Herman Melville and not Wellingborough Redburn. It’s not so surprising, then, that Melville was dismissive of Redburn. He wrote it fast and wrote it for the money and frankly, you can tell. It’s an overly long, highly digressive travelogue of a book where you find yourself sifting through random chapters about churches in Liverpool and Redburn’s father’s unusable guidebook before Melville eventually gets around to anything resembling a plot again. This technique works a lot better in Moby Dick, but even there people find it annoying.

But I can’t help but wonder if he was dismissive of it because it was a little exposing to him, too. Writing it that fast perhaps meant that it’s more raw, more reflective of parts of himself he wasn’t fond of, and when all is said and done that’s what will stick with me most about this book.

4 stars

* His name, despite what the back cover of my Penguin Classics edition of the book would have you believe, is actually Wellingborough Redburn and not Wellington Redburn. Shame on you, Penguin Classics, shame on you.