The Windup Girl: Incredible world-building

If you’ve ever read science fiction you know that world-building is a key ingredient in most books of the genre. Whether an author is writing about a galactic civilization set thousands of years into the future or imagining New York City in the year 2075, he has a lot of moving pieces to assemble: history, technology, politics, distant worlds, new cultures, alien races. World-building is a key component of a book’s setting. It can drive the plot. It can contribute to character development. In other words, it’s the backbone of the novel.

World-building is what distinguishes Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl from the other books published last year. It is set more than a century from now, on an Earth that’s been devastated by global warming, corporate-sponsored bio-terrorism, the collapse of fossil fuel supplies and a world-wide shortage of food.

Bacigalupi has not only assembled a nightmare vision of the future. He’s also imagined how humanity has adjusted and survived. He shows us bio-engineers trying to resurrect long extinct crop plants. He imagines technologies for power-production, such as flywheels spun up by genetically enhanced elephants. He’s described an international network of “calorie companies,” enterprises which bio-engineer food, patent and license that food, and invent pestilential viruses and bacteria to wipe out the food of their competitors.

Ultimately the world-building of Bacigalupi serves as the back drop to the story the author is telling, which in itself is excellent. It won the Hugo and the Nebula last year, after all. But what I found most striking about this book is the mature vision of a speculative future that Bacigalupi brings to the table with this – his first novel. He world-builds like a veteran. It’s not easy. So many science fiction novels collapse under the weight of an author’s absurd and poorly constructed vision of an another world.

The world Bacigalupi created is so interesting and so terrifying that I want to go back to it again. Rather than read another book about the characters featured in The Windup Girl, I want to return to this world. It was a thought that ran through my head the whole time I was reading the book. This is an intriguing vision of the future, a future that is certainly possible. Exploring what it’s like to live in a future that is a consequence of the issues that loom over us today, such as global warming and fossil fuel depletion, is terrifying and yet compelling.

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This Immortal: A SciFi novel that could teach today’s writers a few things

This weekend the World Science Fiction Society declared a tie in the voting for its prestigious Hugo Award for best science fiction novel. China Mieville’s The City & The City and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl shared the award. This reminded me of another couple of books that shared the same award more than four decades ago in 1966. One of them, Frank Herbert’s Dune, has gone on to enjoy countless re-printings, multiple sequels and several film adaptations. The other book is out of print and barely remembered. I’m talking about This Immortal, by Roger Zelazny.

This Immortal‘s out-of-print status is unfortunate because the little book offers a couple of valuable lessons to contemporary SciFi authors.

First of all, brevity can be a virtue.

I admit it. I enjoy a long-winded space opera as much as any geek, as long as it’s well-written. Dune is one of the granddaddies of the genre. Herbert slowly pushes his coterie of interesting characters through an excellent plot. But those characters must also trudge through hundreds of pages of back story and thousands of years of fictional history.

In other words, the author immerses the reader fully in his fictional universe. It’s a delight, but it’s also a commitment to plow through all those pages.

With This Immortal, Zelazny takes a different approach. Where Herbert is Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Zelazny is Ernest Hemingway. His prose is straightforward and to the point. The book is largely driven by dialog rather than exposition. And rather than running for 700 or 800 pages, This Immortal is barely more than 200 pages.

The short science fiction novel has become a lost art form. So many writers feel the need to build a universe for their stories and plot gets lost in the back story. Zelazny avoids this trap. He offers just hints of a back story: His main character, Konrad, seems to be immortal. His immortality could be a mutation or he could be a god. Earth has been devastated by nuclear war, but the when, why and how are left vague. The survivors are caretakers, trying to keep control of the Earth away from a mostly benevolent race of aliens who look at the Earth as a tourist destination. That’s most of the back story right there, and Zelazny delivers it in 10 or 15 pages scattered through the book.

The second lesson of This Immortal is even more vital. Don’t be afraid to defy the conventions of your chosen genre. Zelazny’s book is a post-apocalyptic novel that isn’t bleak.

So many SciFi writers are slaves to their genres. The space opera and the sword and sorcery fantasy must be epic, grandiose and serious-minded. How else are you going to create a sense of wonder? And post-apocalyptic novels? They have to be bleak and scary. Maybe there will be a little hope for redemption, but generally the characters are screwed.

Zelazny steps away from these tropes. This Immortal has hints of whimsy and magic. Konrad, his immortal protagonist, is mischievous, sarcastic and gallant all at once. He could be a freak of nature, or he could be a god. He’s not very sure, himself.

The nuclear-devastated Earth is scarred by radiation and filled with terribly mutated creatures and vast, uninhabitable regions. Yet hope isn’t lost. Those humans who survived have found a way to live decent, happy lives. Some of the mutated people and animals take the shapes of mythological creatures like centaurs and satyrs, creating some ambiguity in the novel. Has nuclear devastation opened the door to a return to the age of immortal gods and magical beings? Or are these hints of magic and wonder some cruel, cosmic coincidence? Adding just the possibility of magic changes up the nature of the standard post-apocalyptic form by replacing the bleakness with whimsical ambiguity.

These are lessons that some genre writers should keep in mind. Short and sweet can be just fine. Hints at a back story can be enough. Let readers fill in the gaps. Also, changing up the tropes of a genre can be refreshing… Indeed, it made this 44-year-old novel a breath of fresh air.