I picked up this book because the premise was fascinating: in a futuristic Thailand, calories are more precious than anything we can imagine today. Calorie companies and governments and other factions struggle for power, even as people struggle to survive in the background of daily life, searching for scraps of food that aren't infected by plagues or mutated into killing bites of food. And in the middle of the story, a windup girl, genetically engineered for perfect obedience, finds herself overheating in this burning city as she struggles to survive.
Ugh, I ultimately didn't like this book because I thought it couldn't portray the world and characters as well as it should have.
One of the biggest problems, for me, was the backdrop of the story. Set in a supposed futuristic world, the setting was more like a direct imitation of history. And I'm just not historically literate enough in Thai or Malaysian history to understand the finer points of the story. This is a major sticking point for me because he tries to integrate the very culture of the countries into the book. But since he does next to nothing introducing any sort of historical background, he essentially relies on the reader to know history prior to reading the book. A lot of things went over my head culturally, including languages, certain references to religious aspects of the culture, the integration of different ethnic groups over time, etc. It was pretty frustrating because I could see that I was missing a lot, but there wasn't much I could do besides go do some extracurricular reading (and please, my time is limited as it is).
So lack of historical integration aside, I also had major problems with stereotyping. The first hundred pages in, I honestly thought the author just decided to take all the largest stereotypes of about the ethnic groups and shove them into a story. It was like taking a piece of history and shoving stereotyped characters into it - and overall, it didn't feel very... reverent to the history. Especially the mentions of slaughter and whole destruction of villages. Although the author writes that it's all set in a futuristic world, it's obvious he's drawing on historical references - but pays no attention to sensitivity when writing about it. That bothers me quite a bit.
Those things aside, which are only a little bit of the author's actual skill in writing, I guess I would also say that I only felt the mildest of attachments to the characters. If they lived or died, eh. It didn't really matter to me. Which is a bit of a problem, in my opinion. And did they really have different personalities? Not really. Everyone is paranoid, everyone is scheming, everyone is being played. Dialogue also wasn't anything of note - predominately because his dialogue was used so minimally and only then to further the plot line. That isn't a bad thing, and I think it was fine. But all of those things just lead to characters that are just characters trying to survive. And none of them with a special place in my heart.
See, Bacigalupi just does plot well. Hmm wait, no let me qualify that. He juggles scenes with different characters and interweaves different plot lines very well. I don't think he does plot that well, to be honest. But first, on the juggling aspect. Dang, this guy is amazing. We see how one character's actions impact five other ones in the next chapter, all while leading up to the next point of action. It's astonishing and really quite lovely. I think that's predominately what kept me reading this book. Seeing what would happen next, even if I didn't care about the next person's thoughts.
Now, on the aspect of plot... If you take a step back and think about what happens in the book, it's all very bland with a complete lack of direction. It's just masses of people running around with their own ideas of plots in their mind, other people countering those plans, and in the end, just everyone trying to survive. But for a clear plot? Meh, not so much. Who was the major players? They hardly even appear in the book. What was the climax of the story? Barely relevant.
This book did a pretty good job of showcasing survival. And that's pretty much it. No, wait. It did introduce new concepts in scifi that I haven't seen before. But those are only mild, with flaws. For example, how is a windup person heechy-keechy but also super fast in movement at the same time?
I wish he placed more emphasis in exploring the idea of gene ripping or the windup people or something in this new world. Instead, he focuses on the bare bones methods of survival in this world.
Not impressed, even though I felt there was so much potential in this world and story. It wasn't bad, just not good. And the historical stuff bothered me a little too much.
Glad I read it, but it still gets two stars.
Would probably recommend to someone who has a better history of Thailand and Malaysia and likes science fiction. Hmm.. but also isn't bothered by stereotypes either. Y'know, I might not recommend it to anyone other than a scifi lover with nothing left to read.