Tuesday, November 09, 2010

A few days ago, I finished The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, winner of the 2010 Hugo for best novel.

The Windup Girl is a dystopia set in Thailand, after a collapse due to the end of the petroleum age and then a second collapse caused by plagues of mutated genetically engineered crops.  The narrative is split between four characters, a North American businessman in Thailand to undermine the government and get access to the Thai market for his companie's crops, a Malaysian refugee trying to survive in a country hostile to foreigners, a soldier of the enforcement arm of the Thai government's environmental ministry, and the titular windup girl - a genetically modified human abandoned by Japanese businessmen.

It's hard to find anyone to sympathize with.  The windup girl herself is an innocent, abused horribly throughout the novel and constrained by her breeding and training, but is so helpless through most of the novel that it is hard to identify with her.  The businessman is amoral and thoughtless.  The refugee is scheming and dishonest.  The soldier is a bully and a proto-fascist.

I suspect the author wants us to sympathize with the latter character, and his lieutenant who takes over the narrative part way through, due to his efforts to protect the local environment and loyalty to the Thai government, but this is hard to go along with given the obvious comparisons between his "white shirts" and the historic "black shirts" or "brown shirts".

Even with the lack of a sympathetic protagonist, the book is still well written and compelling. 

Sunday, November 07, 2010

I just finished The Prestige by Christopher Priest.

This is the basis for the movie of the same name.  There's no way I'll be able to avoid SPOILERS in this post, so reader beware...

I saw the movie version of this story years ago, and enjoyed it as one of the most intelligent movies of the time.  The book is equally good, though different in many ways.  Both are built around a feud between two magicians, Borden and Angier, ultimately ending in tragedy, but the differences are striking, and are mostly improvements in the film version.

The novel is book-ended by modern scenes involving the magician's grandchildren that don't feel necessary to the story, and the film wisely gets rid of them.  In the novel, the fact that Borden is actually a twin is strongly hinted at from early on, and is even investigated by Angier before being dismissed.  The movie avoids any hints of twins, and depends on the impression created by only showing one Borden, to keep the audience from suspecting it as well.  This strengthens the contrasts between the two magicians and the irony of Angier making the Tesla device work.  In the book, the device leaves behind a copy that is not fully alive (referred to by Angier as the "prestige materials", which explains the title, something the movie never really does), while the movie Angier is actually actively killing the duplicates left behind, a much more intense, almost melodramatic, emotional choice.  The movie also makes the feud between the two stronger, tying it to their actions while working together and making their acts of sabotage more concrete, while the novel keeps the two very seperate, and their feud is almost abstract.

Overall, the novel is still a very good read and recommended.