The Windup Girl

Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl has a strange title. One that gives the impression you’ll be reading a clockpunk story with automatons. You won’t. Contrary, you’ll be reading a story focusing on global warming and biotechnology, which will draw you into an intriguing, dystopian world, set in 23rd century Thailand. The book’s gorgeous cover had me intrigued, it looked like I was about to read a travel blog from the future. A mix of dusty street markets, pin-pointy skyscrapers, and Thai Buddhist temples. And what was a giant elephant doing on the cover of a biopunk science fiction novel? No, this was a Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel, and the blurb from Time Magazine stating, ‘Bacigalupi is a worthy successor to William Gibson,’ wasn’t far from the truth. Though I personally preferred The Windup Girl to Neuromancer.

The world’s resources are depleted, and society is dominated by megacorporations, whose monopoly on biotechnology gives them sovereignty over the masses. OK, isn’t that already happening? Scary. Now, Thailand has managed to be the exception, managing to preserve reserves of genetically sustainable seeds, as well as securing its borders from manufactured plagues and threatening bioterrorism brought about by economic hitmen. In this setting, and with the absence of oil and petroleum, giant springs are manually wound by genetically altered elephants, amply named Megadonts, and are used to store energy in those very same spring-driven motors. Quite the surprising solution and it explains the massive elephant on the book’s cover.

So, it’s from one of these hitmen, Anderson Lake, that we are introduced to the ‘Windup Girl’, Emiko. An enigmatic and attractive creature. She is one of the New People, who are slaves, soldiers, and toys to the rich, but Windups are illegal in Thailand. Emiko is an engineered human, created and programmed as a kind of geisha servant. She was originally a sex companion to a Japanese delegate, who was on a diplomatic mission and was left abandoned by her owner. As were other Windups once affluent humans got bored of them.

There is a lot you can interpret in the story as warnings of what the future of the present world will end up suffering if humanity does not act to solve current environmental problems. Against the backdrop of this dystopian future, Bacigalupi unfolds events and advances the story by immersing the reader in the lives and struggles of the protagonists. Offering a sense of nostalgia, engaging the reader empathetically, such as Emiko’s longing for her former master’s embrace. Or discovering the deeper machinations of Anderson Lake’s mission, who pursues his goals with unbending thirst and assertiveness. The two meet when Anderson meets Emiko in a sex club where she offers information for help in finding her freedom.

The book holds up well years later. Though it’s frightening to see a lot of what is written in its pages is unfolding in the news and social media today. A lot of the environmental issues in the story happen behind a veil of political friction, just as they are happening now. Emotionally tense, The Windup Girl is a remarkably intelligent story, which I highly recommend.

‘Politics is ugly. Never doubt what small men will do for great power.’ – Paolo Bacigalupi

Becoming Superman

This is a dark book, with moments of light shedding rays of hope into dark places. People have different thresholds, different limits to how much they can endure. I know I have mine and I know where I would lose all hope. But J. M. Straczynski surpasses all these trials; a terrible childhood of impoverished circumstances and abuse that only shocks the senses.

We witness the struggle as he inches on as a writer of screenplays and comic books, towards his career in Hollywood; from The Twilight Zone and Changeling, to Babylon 5 and onto Netflix originals with Sense 8, and shows us how it’s done with perseverance, courage and determination. He offers essential writing advice throughout his personal story, advice which makes the book indispensable.

The story of becoming superman exceeds any story written before of the superman I’ve grown up to know and admire. J. M. Straczynski’s Becoming Superman is a life tale that goes well beyond the fictional account of Clark Kent and what we’ve come to know of him after he arrives from Krypton. For him, meeting Superman as a child was transformative.

But Straczynski’s biography is both inspirational and horrifying. A young boy raised by damaged adults, who must learn to survive. He finds refuge in comics and imaginary characters, where he discovers a world of superheroes whose special powers give them the ability to overcome their misfortunes. Here he makes a discovery that will change his life, a realization that change comes and can happen to the most unfortunate and emotionally devastated souls. Where Straczynski, a little boy whose story is part darkness and part creation, uncovers his own superpower. The ability to weave stories from the depths of his imagination and break free from within. From here the writer’s journey begins. A journey that takes us on a personal history of discovery, which up till now was veiled in mystery. J. M. Straczynski manages to keep a balance on the horror we discover in the mystery, with humor and intelligence.

My first and most noteworthy meeting of Straczynski’s work was Babylon 5, a story that encompassed a single-story arc across five seasons, a “novel for television”, with a defined beginning, middle, and end; in essence, each episode would be a single “chapter” of this “novel”. This was new territory for television, something we take for granted today with Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime etc., but a great risk for TV in the early 90s. Not only did he take on this immense challenge, Straczynski wrote most of the 110 episodes, as well as the pilot and five television movies. On the journey, he constantly kept his viewers and fans updated online on the fan-run website, The Lurker’s Guide to Babylon 5. And this was in 1993, with the internet in its infancy! Yeh, I was one of the fans who after every episode would dial up the internet to learn more from the lips of our hero, Straczynski, who would post detailed analyses and answer fans’ questions. Oh, and by the way, The Lurker’s Guide is still alive and well today. A historical legacy and testament to what J. M. Straczynski achieved with Babylon 5.

Becoming Superman is a story with controversy and drama, but it never overwhelms you. Instead, it’s a tale of discovery and coming to terms with yourself, of breaking away from your past, no matter how ugly it was. A narrative that chronicles a journey to uncovering your true potential.