The Big Idea: Paolo Bacigalupi
If you read science fiction short stories, the name “Paolo Bacigalupi” has become a familiar one recently, in no small part because it keeps cropping up during awards season: four Hugo nominations in five years, Locus and Sturgeon award wins, and general praise from all quarters.
The work in short fiction is the foundation for Bacigalupi’s debut novel The Windup Girl, set in a world where aggressive genetic engineering sometimes leads to crop blights and food shortages — “calorie plagues” — and where that pretty girl you see walking down the street might not be human at all. As with Bacigalupi’s short work, The Windup Girl is already generating enormous praise (“clearly one of the finest science fiction novels of the year,” wrote Publishers Weekly, which gave the book a coveted starred review) and is already a contender for the next awards season.
So it’s interesting that this book finds its start in something very humble indeed: The work of garlic farmers…
The Windup Girl is set in a future Bangkok where sea levels have risen and oil has run out, and where a company man named Anderson Lake is on the hunt for a hidden seedbank. The Thai Kingdom, unlike almost every other country in the world, has managed to fend off the calorie plagues with aggressive isolationist polices, and now—much to the surprise of the calorie companies, who control agriculture—the Thais are engineering their own competing seedstock. Lake wants access to the genetic gold mine of the Thai seedbank, and to find the man who is engineering their plague-resistant crops. Obviously, this isn’t in Thailand’s best interest, and mayhem ensues.
The novel is partly inspired by couple friends of mine who are garlic farmers. Every summer they dig up their garlic crop, separate it into bulk garlic and braids, and sell the majority of it. But a few garlic cloves–the biggest, fattest, finest ones–get saved for planting the following year. The cloves they retain guarantee the future of their garlic farm, and the slow improvement of the crop as it becomes bigger, hardier, and more productive over successive generations. That garlic, grown on a single mesa in Colorado becomes more unique and more productive with every season. It’s the slow version of genetic engineering.
Contrast with this with a major agricultural company like Monsanto or ADM. As opposed to a creating a unique product from a unique place, they’re interested in creating uniform products that will be sold everywhere. And because of profit concerns, they need to do it quickly, with the best technologies available. Of course, engineering something like Roundup Ready soybeans isn’t cheap, so they would very much prefer that farmers not replant the seeds that they develop, because it’s not very profitable if a farmer just keeps recycling the product s/he bought twenty years ago.
These two versions of genetic engineering, both of them for profit, and both of them aimed at increasing crop quality over time, fascinate me. They each have merits, depending on what sort of outcomes you expect from food production, but around the time corporate research created something called the Terminator gene so that farmers could never replant their seeds, I started feeling a little concerned about where we were headed.
Based on what I’ve seen of global food companies, and my own–admittedly megalomaniacal―impulses, I started scheming about how I’d run an international food corporation if I really wanted to get profits rolling. First, I’d want to get rid of competing crops. So I’d manufacture food blights to kill anything that wasn’t my own genetically resistant seedstock. Then I’d bring out the Terminator gene, so that no one could ever replant my patented seed. And then of course I’d jack up the price, and wallow in all that money.
In The Windup Girl, the calorie plagues that some food executive created in a moment of inspiration have evolved and gotten out control. Corporate genehackers are just one step ahead of the next blister rust mutation. Crop blights have jumped from plants to people and now spread with horrifying speed through human populations, and as food becomes more and more centralized in its production and desperately needed in the world, agricultural corporations have become the most powerful organizations on the planet.
Depending on your level of paranoia, this will seem either nuts or all too likely (just don’t put me at the helm of an international corporation). But profit scheming aside, the thing that fascinates me about complex technologies like genetic engineering is how many things can go wrong. Good ideas, even the best ideas, have unexpected and disruptive consequences, and I like seeing how those cascading effects work out in society and on people. As a writer, I love it when things go wrong. So The Windup Girl takes place in a world almost everything has.