I enjoyed it, even though the book was slow to start. I think Bacigalupi does an admirable job of immersing the narrative in Thai culture; unfortunately I'm not sure that's always a good thing. It's a task for a (Western) reader to keep track of some of the different concepts that are floating around - the wais
and how it all fits into the universe that the story's set in, which is already a departure from our own. Had it been just
a cultural shift, or a scientific shift, or a global economic and political shift, then it might have been less heavy going. As it is, I'm conscious that the combination of all of those elements make it a little hard to stay immersed in the narrative without mentally backtracking to make sure you understand what's actually being talked about in any particular scene.
I enjoyed the bulk of the characters, regardless of the fact that their sections were a bit disjointed and stretched out. A couple of points though;
- I'm not sure that Bacigalupi always hits the right note with the Emiko's reaction to her own nature. The fact that she's very aware of those impulses which come from her genetic tampering sort of 'softens' their impact. I did enjoy her overall, and the sense of agency that comes from her growing understanding of what she's capable of. While we're on the subject of Emiko, can we also take a moment to acknowledge how misleading the title is? Emiko has her own arc going on, but this very much isn't her story - arguably it's Anderson's, for the most part, but at best it's a pick-and-mix of different people. From the title (and, let's be honest, the description of the book) I thought that Emiko would feature more heavily, or at least play a more integral part in the plot. That she didn't was ultimately disappointing, and I'm not sure we really got everything we should have from the existence of New People as a whole.
- Jaidee was just plain interesting; a cheerful, inherently positive force of nature who accepts that he's a vicious bully on a regular basis. There's a lot of grey morality going on there, but it's the kind that convinces us Jaidee might genuinely be a force for good. To that end, I was disappointed that he died so early on, and that very little came from Kanya's taking over as captain and Jaidee's phii following her around for the rest of the novel. Ultimately her actions in the seed bank were for the good of the country as a whole, but she was far less compelling as a character, and even the fact that she eventually did the right thing felt like a little bit of a stretch.
- Hock Seng got boring quickly. I empathised with the parallel between Emiko as the Inhuman Other and him as the Human Other, and how they were both hiding in plain sight within a society that wouldn't accept them, but oh man. After about the twentieth time of hearing about him being a sneaky toad and paranoid of everything, I was done with it. I don't think there was enough room in the narrative for him to do anything interesting, except slope around the factory plotting ways to rob Anderson.
- Anderson was slightly more interesting, and in a novel about the intrigue of calorie men and the machinations of the big, bad corporations, he might have come into his own. As it was we touched on some interesting things with his mission overall and his potential feelings for Emiko (particularly regarding whether he protected her from Akkarat intentionally or not) but again, they didn't really get off the ground and he went and died before the end of the novel, so that sort of put paid to that, huh?
Speaking of Anderson and endings, the long-awaited encounters with Gibbons are a little underwhelming, and while the closing scenes offer a touch of hope, they don't really round things off in the way that I'd have hoped. I liked the idea that New People might have a future, but as a plot element it was just sort of there
, appearing out of nowhere much in the same way that Gibbons and Kip did in their little boat. Likewise, his appearance in Kanya's story didn't really achieve much except for providing a lever through which to push the plot into further movement, and for a character who supposedly had so much impact in the development of both the calorie countries and the Thai kingdom, Gibbons seemed to do very little. The ultimate conclusion with the flooding of Bangkok and the scattering of the seedbank was nothing short of a relief, and I think if I'd been more invested in Kanya it would have been all the more satisfying, but Gibbons' 'glimpse of the future' didn't entirely do it for me.
As a final point, I have to praise Bacigalupi's depiction of his version of Bangkok. I loved the feel of the city, and I think it's little things like the attention to street vendors and foot traffic and tent slums that really tie it all together. It feels like what it is; a population-swollen holdout struggling to get by in a difficult world.
So, overall, not a bad
novel, but certainly not what I expected given all the acclaim that's been heaped on it. The wooly plot elements and didn't-quite-make-it moments sort of put the kibosh on me really being into this one, but I don't regret reading it, and there were a handful of well crafted moments in there that kept me going.