Last night’s The Windup Girl discussion was a real deal literary salon. Distinct opinions arose. The scope and technical skill of Windup Girl were undeniable; complex, impeccable world-building, a vast swath of ultimately interconnected characters, none seeming more important than the others. Of the half dozen people who attended the meeting last night, 3 of the 6 did not finish reading the book. Two of the 6, one who finished and one who had not, did not recommend the book. Four of us thought it was excellent, even masterful.
David said, “If a student asks, ‘What is the state of science ficiton today?’ then it is this book.” What did he mean by that? Well, we asked: This book, in contrast to Metropolis, is entirely mimetic. It has limited itself to completely believable descriptions of a material world and the mundane movements of people within it. Using that vehicle, it delivers an extraordinary vision that must be largely deduced by the reader.
“He never lets you peek behind the curtain,” said Suhail.
“Nary an infodump. Not a single one,” noted Meg. Every piece of information regarding the very masterful and complex world building is embedded in the prose and actions of the characters. Show-don’t-tell is followed to the letter, with incredible discipline – and it is exhausting. So much discipline that the reader is wondering, David observed, “Am I seeing this right? Is this what’s happening?” We must rely entirely on the slow and gradual reveal of contextual details. Chris says that this “puts the reader in the same position as every character in the book!” And there was a murmur of assent that this was a good thing. Suhail replied that “there are different philosophies about how a reader should be treated.”
Suhail was one of the people who did not finish the book, and did not recommend it to others. Nowell finished it, but also did not recommend it to others.
Suhail: This is technically masterful, socially innocuous, status quo-reinforcing fiction in the same ilk as Daryl Gregory’s Afterparty and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. It is written so well that it doesn’t suck, so you can get to the end, but so what? I don’t care about any of the characters, no matter how well rendered, and I’m not surprised by any of the plot developments. Some sci fi does a good job at making the present feel like the future. But this makes the future feel like the present. The calorie man is the oil baron. The kink springs are steam industry. White men in corporations are going to fuck everything over in the process of taking it for themselves, and the brown people will run off into the woods again. Too bad, folks, get used to it. The megodonts are Jurassic Park. I just couldn’t stay interested, no matter how MFA the writing was.
Au contrer, say Meg and Chris: This book asks for more patience than the average one-off sci fi book. “It is a slow burn,” said Meg. [To which, Suhail responds, a slow burn leading to a meager guttering puff of expiration.] This slow burn concept came up a few times. It takes a while for all the seemingly unrelated characters to get laid out, but then when their lives start intersecting, you see how masterful and mesmerizing it is.
David was ambivalent, but still interested, as he had not finished the book yet, but wanted to see it all pulled together. Meg assured him the payoff was gratifying. Suhail was resistant, “I hypothesize that you will feel exactly the same way about it after you finish the book.” Suhail also added, to mild disapprobation, “I did not finish reading this book, and may even tell others not to read it.” “Now that’s a little harsh,” replied Chris.
Meg also admired the significantly researched hard science in this science fiction novel. Every technology Pacigalupi described was backed up by present scientific knowledge, so detailed in fact that it is a little opaque to the reader. This lead to a tangential discussion of Kim Stanley Robinson, and perhaps reading him next year.
Meg also said she could not teach this novel, because she’d have to spend so much time explaining and rationalizing to the students the literary purpose of the very “triggering” scenes and images strewn about the book. (Like the way Emiko, the Windup Girl, is treated, as well as other vivid, normalized depictions of racism and oppression; but mimetic, like David said, purely descriptive, not judgement-laden.) Suhail connected this need for filtration with the implicit status-quo whiteness of the book’s backdrop. “For people (like multicultural university students) who are less sympathetic to white privilege, I imagine this book has a lot less luster.”
Suhail admitted toward the end something about his prejudice. “Regarding David’s accurate observation that this book is entirely mimetic, it gives no symbolic trapdoor for interpretation, it is so antithetical to the storytelling style of Metropolis (which I enjoyed so much) – I think that fact motivates my prejudice against this book; because ever since I began reading books, I’ve gravitated more toward the symbolic, representational, iconographic flavor of storytelling. Also, thank you for trying to convince me to read The Windup Girl. I promise in the future I will not abuse this indulgence of skipping the reading.”
Wrap up: 3 of 6 finished reading The Windup Girl. 4 of 6 recommend reading The Windup Girl. We’re taking off July 4th, but be reading LeGuin!!!
See you July 11th for Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness. [Geek trivia: One of David Gill’s cats is named Ursula.]
Thank you for reading! Reading rules!