What? I haven't said anything about this book yet?
I've now read this book for two different book clubs. And I'm working on reading everything that Bacigalupi's ever published. The Windup Girl won the Hugo and the Nebula, and well-deserved both.
What makes this book so excellent?
Well, first, it posits a frightening, fully believable, and wholly realized future. Set an indeterminate amount of time from now, not all the details are filled in. The Expansion (a time period that we're obviously in right now) has occurred, followed by the Contraction (a period of economic and ecological collapse), and now it's been long enough that some people have schemes and dreams of rebuilding... but things potentially are just getting worse. What I like about the setting is that although not every detail is IN the book, you get the impression that they EXIST. Wars have occurred, names of countries have changed, crises have happened elsewhere, offstage... All the action takes place in the context of a world, not a little narrative bubble.
Bacigalupi also excels at portraying the intersection of individual and culture. All his people have depth of character as individuals, but their actions and behaviors are also informed not only by their circumstances but by their cultural background and/or group identity. Nearly all of the characters in the book are reprehensible people, who do unforgivable things. As a reader, however, you can't help feeling empathy, or at least, understanding, for nearly all of them, because their motivations make sense. Everyone in this book has a believable reason for behaving in the way that they do. Circumstance drives people to do as they do, and if you want to survive in this world, you have to have an eye for the main chance.
I don't think that a description of all the main characters is called for. The book reveals them. But it's unavoidable to mention the titular character, Emiko. A character genetically engineered and trained to be a slave and a sex toy. The mere premise causes a knee-jerk reaction in some people, and admittedly, doing this right could be hard to pull off. However, Bacigalupi does a fantastic job with her character. (I have to note here that any 'reviewer' who refers to Emiko as a "robot" did not actually read the book.) In creating her, and depicting what happens to her, he harshly criticizes some very real aspects of certain cultures which fully warrant that criticism, and does so fairly and accurately. (Not one culture or group in this book gets a pass, or is portrayed as 'good' - just about everyone has somehow been complicit in bringing the world to where it is.) But Emiko also exists not just as a political statement but as a fully realized, sympathetic character. Like all of us, she is torn between one instinct and another, conflicted, having to endure, able to find hidden reserves of strength to survive. She also shows us that whatever people try to do to humanity, people will always strive for freedom. And she also, finally, tells us that although technology may be the instrument and cause of our downfall, it also may be the only slim straw of our hope.
The book is not without aspects that I quibble with. One of the main premises of the book is that food is in short supply, and energy is measured in calories. People are described as on the brink of starvation. However, the book itself is FULL of food. People are constantly walking through markets full of fruits and vegetables, stopping at noodle stands, eating, eating eating. It undercuts the stated scarcity of food when you're seeing food everywhere. Also as far as the calories - I love the megadonts. It makes cultural sense that the Thai would want to genetically engineer giant elephants. BUT - how are they feeding them? Do you really get enough work out of feeding them to justify the expense? (That's actually already an issue with today's, smaller elephant in Southeast Asia.)
I loved that the book takes place in Thailand. In reality, Thailand is the only Asian kingdom that has continually maintained its independence and never fallen to an invader or colonial forces. It makes sense that in the future, they could be a last holdout, maintaining strength in isolation, protecting their heritage even while torn by internal conflict.
I didn't actually have a problem with the imaginary kink-spring tech. It's something people are working on. (http://www.asme.org/kb/news---articles/articles/nanotechnology/carbon-nanotube-super-springs)
Bacigalupi obviously thinks genetically modified foods are a threat. I'd say he's far more against them than I am. But, hey, it is entirely possible that Monsanto (oh, I mean AgriGen) could and would create genetically engineered crop plagues that would force industries worldwide to rely on their products. It's not the technology, it's about the use to which the technology is put. And, I suppose, if you believe that technology will never be put to its worst possible use, you have rosier view of human nature than either I or Bacigalupi has. There's an inevitability there... OK, I'm rambling. But, yay, seedbanks! Yay crop diversity! And yay, rambutans!
Go read this book. And then go read Pump Six.