My review: The Windup Girl vs. River of Gods

Discussion in 'Science Fiction' started by nquixote, Aug 28, 2010.

  1. nquixote

    nquixote trolling > dissertation

    Joined:
    Jul 1, 2009
    Messages:
    1,123
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    From Cinefugitive:

     
  2. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

    Joined:
    Mar 22, 2003
    Messages:
    12,631
    Likes Received:
    207
    Trophy Points:
    198
    Okay, I'm torn here by a desire to let you run wild with new terms for things (because hey, why not?) and that nagging aspect where I'm going why is this a "new exotic"? What exactly is new about it or all that exotic? Is it just the more Third/Second World, Asian setting? (which isn't new, but having more books hit it could certainly be considered a nucleus of interest at the moment. Understand, I'm interested in both books, which are supposed to be good.) And is calling that "Exotic," something of a colonial word, the best choice perhaps?

    And I just can't get behind Declinepunk because that is cyberpunk. Cyberpunk deals with technological societies that are in decay. Certainly, these guys are reinvigorating cyberpunk, but unless they are presenting a really hopeful picture of the future emerging from revolution, (hopepunk,) or are having them build houses for the homeless (HabitatforHumanitypunk,) I don't see this really deviating from the themes of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson.

    I do get what you're saying about Wind-up Girl having a more believable view of future development than River of Gods. I think you have a point about the Indian society as drawn. However, I don't feel the caste system is currently irrelevant in India at all. The lower castes, the untouchables, etc., have made enormous strides but they are still fighting for their political and at times literal life and the situation for women varies from hopeful to appalling. I've been reading a few novels about India by Indian writers that don't have quite that rosy a view of its development, and while the technology is rapidly changing things, it's very uneven. And the entire world, not just India, is burdened by fundamentalism, of multiple types. India is just so large, what would perhaps be more believable to me is an India that has broken up into several different countries by 2047, some of them being the economic powerhouses of the world, others not and collapsing, much like India and Pakistan are now.

    It's always been a difficult thing to do, and SF has often erred on the side of a conservative, closer to home view of what's going to happen. I'm reminded of all those near future novels of the 1980's where the Chinese were running the world and running it as communist overlords out of Orwell. And I'm reminded of the medieval maps of Europe that show not the countries that we know today but dozens and dozens of smaller countries and a few large empires that no longer exist.

    How does Thailand end up the global powerhouse when the seas rose in The Wind-Up Girl?
     
  3. beniowa

    beniowa Registered User

    Joined:
    May 11, 2009
    Messages:
    551
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    51
    I'm not sure just how powerful Thailand really is in the book, but they have quite a bit of autonomy because they have their own independent seedbank.

    In Bacigalupi's world, genetic engineering has altered not only people and animals, but also plants and more specifically crops. The Calorie Companies are essentially the food companies of today (think Kraft), but grown far more powerful because they control the genetic codes of crops that are resistant to genetically engineered viruses. Part of the plot of The Windup Girl involves an agent of one of the Calorie Companies trying to gain access to Thailand's seedbank.

    Hope that helps. :)
     
  4. nquixote

    nquixote trolling > dissertation

    Joined:
    Jul 1, 2009
    Messages:
    1,123
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Too late! I did! Wheeeeeee!!! :D

    YES! That was what I was getting at. "Exotic" is my name for sci-fi written by an author from one (usually developed) country that takes place in another (usually developing as of the books' writing) country. I guess that writing fiction set in another culture - especially when much is made of the different-ness of that culture - is a kind of literary colonization. Edward Said would certainly think so. ;)

    The "New" comes from the fact that in books like The Windup Girl and River of Gods, there has been sort of a "reversal of fortune," with countries that are now poorer managing to get ahead of America, etc. in some dimension (in River of Gods, India is the leader in AI; in The Windup Girl, Thailand remains a nation-state when America has fallen). I theorize that this envisioning of a reversal of fortune was strongly influenced by the unprecedented robust economic growth that the developing world has experienced in recent decades (hence, it is "New").

    Sure, maybe. But in Neuromancer, or Schismatrix, or True Names, or Snow Crash, or the Ware tetralogy (or in River of Gods), technology is marching (or racing) ahead even as some elements of society are left behind; the mean increases while the median falls.

    In The Windup Girl (and, so I hear, in Julian Comstock), global technology actually takes a massive downturn due to the exhaustion of natural resources.

    That is a big distinction. Perhaps "declinepunk" is not the best word for it, but then again, "cyberpunk" is a pretty cornball term as well.

    See above. I think there is a big difference between predicting widening inequalities within an advancing civilization, and predicting the decline of civilization overall.

    Gibson's, Sterling's, and Stephenson's worlds are all places that one might like to live, provided one was born into the right place. Bacigalupi's world is not a world in which anyone from the present day would choose to live...

    Today I asked an Indian grad student friend what caste he was from. He said he thought he was probably from "the merchant one," which he said was "the second-highest, right above warriors." I asked him what that caste was called; he had forgotten. (FYI, the merchant caste is the Vaishya caste, and it's actually the third-highest, right below the warriors.)

    In contrast, the people in River of Gods know the names of sub-castes, and try to marry within them.


    Yes, the Dalits (untouchables) are the only people for whom the caste system still matters. Sadly, River of Gods does not contain any Dalits.
     
  5. Dawnstorm

    Dawnstorm Master Obfuscator

    Joined:
    Oct 13, 2003
    Messages:
    2,338
    Likes Received:
    4
    Trophy Points:
    123
    Yep, the way I read it, Thailand isn't a global powerhouse at all. Instead, they're an autonomous and relatively prosperous nation because of their seedbank. They don't need to deal with the Calorie Companies for food, but they're still very vulnerable to all the new diseases (a mutating strain could take them out any minute). They're also pretty much surrounded by sea, now (I think, I'd have to check, though), and since oil has become rare, travelling takes longer, which gives Thailand's isolational politics the edge. (Tight control on who can enter, etc.)

    The Calorie Companies practically run the world, and appearing on their radar isn't a good thing. There's constant reference to a tragedy that happened in Finland; we never learn what exactly went on down there, but it's a safe bet that they had a seedbank, too, but it was destroyed in a conflict of some sort. Basically, what this suggests is a world of reduced communications, with islands of relative prosperity, that will fall one after the other to the Calorie Companies, unless they manage to keep their prosperity a secret or, failing that, to ward them off physically.
     
  6. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

    Joined:
    Mar 22, 2003
    Messages:
    12,631
    Likes Received:
    207
    Trophy Points:
    198
    Yes, but non-white readers and authors might not agree with that take on it. Calling Asian cultures "exotic" may come across as more condescending and belittling any worth in those cultures. Something like Pan-Global might be more workable.

    Again, that's not really new. The decline of America as empire and the rise of non-Western nations was very popular in the 1970's and 1980's, which is also when cyberpunk developed into a movement from previous dystopian books. It's basically been assumed for some time now that this will happen and it's influenced Earth-set science fiction for several decades.

    In The Wind-Up Girl, the world may mostly be a mess, but if you work for the agro corporations high up enough, you are experiencing advanced technology, etc., and live well, just like in other cyberpunk societies. The dystopian decline with a bit of apocalypse is still in cyberpunk's purview if critical technology still controls the globe, in this case gene hacking. Cyberpunk deals with dystopia, decline, dissolution, technology, rebellion, youth and sometimes renewal. It also started the trend of putting punk after another word to name things. :) The Wind-Up Girl is often being called biopunk, i.e. a descendant of cyberpunk focused on biological and/or nano technology, but otherwise, same themes. Maybe it's all going to have to be called simply dystopian SF, but that can be misleading too.

    Yes, but there is the possibility of fundamentalism resurgence. While in general, increased technology produces cultural change that is progressive in countries, it is not at all guaranteed. Nativist politics and power wars can produce a regression, not progression. Look what happened with Iran when they had their fundamentalist revolution and got rid of the Shah. The ladies returned to burkas, despite what oil money could buy.

    I'm not saying that I might not have the same problems with it that you had. I frequently find near future or alternate world scenarios too static. But India has problems and a lot of them are big social ones from old ways. I think they will be the major player in the future, but I would not count on them to be completely invulnerable to fundamentalist control. I hope they will be, but a future in which they are not is not entirely implausible to me.

    Of course, I'm talking about all this without having had the chance to read either book yet. :)
     
  7. nquixote

    nquixote trolling > dissertation

    Joined:
    Jul 1, 2009
    Messages:
    1,123
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    It's not that I think those places are exotic (so "exoticist" might be a better word). It's that part of the appeal of books like these are that they present a foreign culture to readers. Readers are entertained by the differentness, strangeness, novelty of the cultures as portrayed; they are exotic. I don't think that's (necessarily) condescending or belittling; someone in another country could write a novel set in America and it would be equally "exotic" to fans in that other country. Japanese writers do it all the time.

    Of course, I think there is potential to be condescending and belittling with this type of fiction. Playing up the foreign-ness of cultures that are far less strange and different than back-home readers assume is sort of a colonialist exercise, even for Bacigalupi who does it well. I think an Indian person might certainly be belittled at River of Gods' portrayal of India as a caste-conscious religiously fundamentalist society. But I don't think I am being condescending by pointing out that exoticism is part of the mass appeal of novels set in foreign cultures...whatever that says about we who like to read the stuff.

    To sum up: the label "New Exotic" means that fans find it exotic.

    Sure, but the set of countries that are predicted to rise to prominence has changed, I think. William Gibson postulated Japan as the global leader when he wrote books in the 80s, but in the 80s that was hardly going out on a limb. The idea that India could pass the U.S. in technological prowess is not new, but it has gained a lot more credence in recent years.

    But yes, things that are labeled "new" are not, in general, mostly "new". Still, the label serves as an indicator that there has been a resurgence in a certain subgenre (e.g. "New Space Opera"), so I think it's useful.

    Come on, Kat, you haven't even read The Windup Girl! It is most certainly not even close to the same. Louis XIV lived well for his day, but he didn't have a flushable toilet. The bigwigs in The Windup Girl live like medieval warlords (I won't give any more spoilers), and life is nasty, brutish, and short even for the high and mighty (though far worse for the poor).

    That's a rather broad definition of "cyberpunk"; as I understand it (and as Neal Stephenson understands it), cyberpunk has something to do with information technology.

    I mean, coming up with subgenre names is always an embarrassing exercise. I have also heard the term "salvagepunk" being thrown around.

    But I stubbornly maintain that there is a qualitative and interesting difference between books that postulate a continued upward march (and even exponential increase) in human technological prowess (e.g. Neuromancer, Snow Crash, Schismatrix) and books that postulate a general technological decline (The Windup Girl). These are not the same kinds of futures. One is what you get from reading Wired, the other is what you get from reading The Oil Drum.

    (To point out just one important difference, the former type often leads to a Singularity, as happens in Neuromancer and True Names. In The Windup Girl, there is no possibility that a Singularity will happen anytime soon. This is not an irrelevant difference.)

    True, and fair enough! But River of Gods never spoke of such a regression; it acted as if the caste and religion stuff had just always been there.

    Anyway, I appreciate that you are skeptical of new terms being tossed around, but I think that something like "New Exotic" (or perhaps "New Exoticist") is needed to label the new wave of foreign-culture sci-fi. And some term is needed to describe the "post-peak" future that is starting to replace the "onward-and-upward-to-the-Singularity" kick that near-future SF was stuck on for a couple decades.
     
  8. Roland 85

    Roland 85 Registered User

    Joined:
    Jun 30, 2010
    Messages:
    814
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    A very good essay (I wouldn't call it a review tbh)! I haven't read River of the Gods, but I have read both The Windup Girl and McDonald's The Dervish House, and I was monstrously underwhelmed by the latter after all the hype. It had exactly the problems you describe in River of the Gods (plus many others...).
     
  9. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

    Joined:
    Mar 22, 2003
    Messages:
    12,631
    Likes Received:
    207
    Trophy Points:
    198
    Yeah, that's exactly the problem that some non-whites are going to have with the term -- that a bunch of white American SF readers think such cultures are "exotic." Let's put it this way, I agree that there is a nucleus of books dealing with Earth decay with a center in non-West countries. And I agree that you could call that group something. But I don't think New Exotic or Declinepunk work very well. Come up with some new ones. :)

    Well that could be problematic because India really is in transition. I guess I'll have to see if it doesn't work for me.
     
  10. nquixote

    nquixote trolling > dissertation

    Joined:
    Jul 1, 2009
    Messages:
    1,123
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Are you implying that all Americans, or all American sci-fi fans, are white? Perhaps you didn't notice that the guy who runs Cinefugitive is Asian-American... ;)

    And here's what I think: if people from Thailand have a problem with American readers enjoying The Windup Girl because it presents Thai culture as exotically foreign, well then, that's a perfectly legitimate gripe! Exoticist fiction, even at its best, is mildly exploitative (even when the "exotic" culture being portrayed is a domestic one, as in 70s-era "blaxploitation" films). Wouldn't it be a little bit dishonest for me to provide cover for authors like Bacigalupi and McDonald by refusing to mention that aspect of their novels' appeal? Am I expected to show solidarity with my fellow American white people by hushing up the very real fact that they are writing exoticist fiction?

    I can't deny that the word "exotic" felt a bit weird to write, but I concluded that it was honest, and so I wrote it.

    Hmm...I may, if I feel like it. You should comment on the original article! ;)
     
  11. Werthead

    Werthead Registered User

    Joined:
    Jul 6, 2006
    Messages:
    3,681
    Likes Received:
    3
    Trophy Points:
    73
    Interesting comparison, but I was slightly bemused to see no attempt made to investigate McDonald's relationship with the countries in question. Whilst others have commented on the more dubious aspects of McDonald's Lonely Planet approach to SF and this is certainly an area that requires further exploration, I found the assumption that McDonald had just seen these places on TV and bashed out a book to be somewhat lazy.

    McDonald spent significant time in each country researching each book in turn (at least he did for RoG, Brasyl and The Dervish House, not sure about the Chaga series). Some have argued this is not enough to be able to write authoritively about each country in question and that may be true (although many other authors have set scenes, chapters and entire novels in cities and countries they've never visited with no problems), but they certainly haven't tried to belittle the work he actually did do for each book by suggesting he was just an armchair traveller.
     
  12. nquixote

    nquixote trolling > dissertation

    Joined:
    Jul 1, 2009
    Messages:
    1,123
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Yes, I exaggerated...
     
  13. Roland 85

    Roland 85 Registered User

    Joined:
    Jun 30, 2010
    Messages:
    814
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Well, I never felt the slightest tinge of Turkey from The Dervish House, so whatever research he's been doing there was completely wasted on me...
     
  14. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

    Joined:
    Mar 22, 2003
    Messages:
    12,631
    Likes Received:
    207
    Trophy Points:
    198
    No, I'm implying that white people thinking brown people's cultures are "exotic" has a lot of racial baggage to it. In particular, the culture is only exotic to white people because they keep themselves ignorant of other cultures, and find it fun and exotic to hear about the primitive, inferior brown cultures. It's like grabbing a black person's dreadlocks and saying "those are so cool." Or more accurately, it's about the colonial white person going to the exotic brown culture to have sex with the natives fantasy. The word exotic becomes condescending, domineering and racially charged.

    Which may or may not be what an author is going for, but to be slapped with the label when you aren't isn't something I think an author would enjoy. It's not honest either -- as exotic is relative to where you live in the world as you pointed out, and these books have international audiences, exotic isn't going to be accurate. Unless you want to get into lots of fights over the word and get your motivations called into question a lot, I'd suggest picking another word with less baggage, is all I'm saying. It's equivalent to calling the Asian-American who runs Cinefugitive Oriental; it's not necessarily going to be appreciated. It's a matter of whether you want to be inclusive or exclusive of readers. Exotic is not an inclusive word.

    I certainly wouldn't accuse McDonald of being an armchair tourist, but even with research, future predictions can seem sort of static, more akin to the current world than a likely future. But sometimes that's interesting in a story. So again, for me, I'd have to see how it played out and if it didn't work for me or not.
     
  15. nquixote

    nquixote trolling > dissertation

    Joined:
    Jul 1, 2009
    Messages:
    1,123
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Hmm...well, I think this is a fairly antiquated view of globalism, but...if you can think of a word or two that means "a story set in a culture that's foreign to both the author and the primary audience," I'll happily use it!

    As it happens, his name is Peter... ;)
     
  16. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

    Joined:
    Mar 22, 2003
    Messages:
    12,631
    Likes Received:
    207
    Trophy Points:
    198
    I thought the point was that the author of The Wind-Up Girl wasn't foreign to the culture he's writing about, and how do you know that he was trying to write for you? :)

    It's an antiquated view of globalism to require things to still be "foreign." Especially in the age of the Internet. It's also a very white man's view, is all I'm saying. Why don't you just use the word globalism?
     
  17. nquixote

    nquixote trolling > dissertation

    Joined:
    Jul 1, 2009
    Messages:
    1,123
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Bacigalupi isn't Thai.

    Well, apart from pure Bayesian inference based on the fact that I bought it, there's my guess that America is the primary market for his books... ;-)

    Kat, come on. What does it mean to "require" something to be foreign? Now I don't even know what you mean.

    See, the race thing is what I think is outdated here. People don't get a thrill from foreign cultures because the inhabitants are nonwhite (I hope)...I mean, a book set in Russia, with Russian characters, and focusing on the (real or imagined) idiosyncrasies of Russian culture would fit perfectly fine in my definition of "New Exotic". In fact, McDonald has written "New Exotic" books set in Turkey and Brazil, both of which are largely populated by white people, one of which may soon join the EU.

    Besides that, I would never claim that nonwhite protagonists like Pham Nuwen, Louis Wu, or Hiro Protagonist are "exotic" in any way.

    'Tain't about race.

    Because that's about economics, when these "New Exotic" books play up the idiosyncrasies of the local culture. In fact, the Thailand of The Windup Girl is economically de-globalized and isolated, and the India of River of Gods seems less affected by international trade and global culture than the India of 2010. So globalization is not what these books are about at all...it's simply my hypothesis that globalization in the real world is one driver of the popularity and acclaim of these books.

    So, come up with something else. :D
     
  18. Roland 85

    Roland 85 Registered User

    Joined:
    Jun 30, 2010
    Messages:
    814
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    I am with nquixote on this one. I don't think New Exotic is inappropriate in any way, and even if it were about race, then so what? Gratuitious PC is gratuitious.
     
  19. KatG

    KatG The Bony Hand of Death Staff Member

    Joined:
    Mar 22, 2003
    Messages:
    12,631
    Likes Received:
    207
    Trophy Points:
    198
    I don't see the need to come up with anything at all. I'm fine with calling them cyberpunk. You're the one who wants a new name. And the word "exotic" has a lot of racial baggage to it, especially for women. And you may feel that it shouldn't and you may not care if it hurts someone else's feelings, but what I'm pointing out is that if you want people to start using the term that you coin, you might want to be a little more sensitive to the fact that just because you don't think that word is bad in this context, others might not agree.

    It means that you, white American, should be familiar with brown cultures because of increased globalism now and they should no longer be foreign to you. That they don't have the lower status of being mysterious, little known cultures -- exotic -- just because you can't be bothered to know anything outside of your own culture.

    You're making the argument that someone in Thailand might not know about U.S. culture and therefore U.S. culture is exotic to that person and it's the same as an American not knowing much about Thai culture. But it's not because of the different countries' status in history and currently. I don't know much about Danish culture either, but are you saying that a futuristic novel set in Denmark you are going to classify as the New Exotic? Is a story set in the U.S. part of the New Exotic because the book gets sold in Japan? Or are you sticking to brown cultures like Thailand and India -- developing nations? Is the New Exotic futuristic decay stories about mainly brown people? And don't you think that might seem a little discriminatory to non-whites, that it's the non-white cultures that are in the New Exotic and not anything else? Especially when non-whites and mixed race people make up a significant portion of the U.S. population?

    If a bunch of white people want to call SF set in brown cultures the New Exotic, no one is going to stop you. But it might not be interpreted the way you mean it. So I'd suggest, again, picking another word. Or just using cyberpunk.
     
  20. nquixote

    nquixote trolling > dissertation

    Joined:
    Jul 1, 2009
    Messages:
    1,123
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Well, Kat, I think the term "brown cultures," which you keep using, is infinitely more insulting than the word "exotic"...