Every so often the question comes up: how do we evaluate works that are, in whole or in part, morally problematic? It just won’t do to fall back on some kind of naive formalism that takes nothing but the words into account—not the author’s situation, not the work’s context. The virulent racism of Birth of a Nation detracts from its goodness as a film in a rather obvious way, and to simply admire the editing in the absence of any discussion of the racism is disingenuous. On the other hand, it is desirable to keep the discussion focused on artistic merit if we’re not talking specifically about whatever moral defect is at issue. And it’s not an obvious contradiction to have a film, book, or piece of music that is both morally defective and aesthetically good—Wagner, Gesualdo, Conrad, Riefenstahl, Polanski, and others come to mind.
Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is set in a future Thailand. Using Thailand in particular opens up all sorts of unappealing possibilities including racism, xenophobia, and sexism, and some have argued that The Windup Girl hits on all of these. It would be dishonest to write a review that didn’t discuss these, but I don’t want to make it the main issue. I am concerned about the various social justice causes, but I am not interested in writing about them because, as someone without much knowledge or even an interesting perspective, there’s nothing I can bring to the table. To the extent that I have an audience, they’re not here to read about such things, which they can get in a much better form elsewhere. So I am going to do a two-part review of The Windup Girl: the first part will focus on plot, character, style, and all that fun stuff, and the second part will discuss the moral defects involving racism, xenophobia, and sexism.
So, on to the actual book. Bacigalupi’s novel is more about exploring its setting, a semi-apocalyptic future world, than its people or their struggles. In The Windup Girl, genetic engineering run rampant has ravaged crops. Global warming has pushed the sea level so high that parts of Thailand are threatened by floods if the levees fail. Food is in short supply and at constant risk from rapidly evolving diseases. A handful of midwestern American agricultural companies have a near monopoly on crop seeds designed to be resistant to the diseases—some of which are released by the companies themselves. These “calorie companies” circle like playground drug-dealers around troubled nations, trying to import their goods and get the populace hooked. Thailand resists, using their seedbank and a rogue genetic engineer bought off from the Americans to stay just ahead of the diseases.
While the Environment Ministry attempts to keep the country on this course, thwarting smugglers and driving away representatives of the calorie companies, they face opposition from the Minister of Trade, an ambitious politician whose star is on the rise. He wants to open the country to American imports, with potentially disastrous results. The Environment ministry people must also deal with internal corruption and infiltration from Trade. Read the rest of this entry »