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.