Two Game-Changing SF Novels I Read This Fall

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This is going to have to be short and incoherent — even shorter and incoherent-er than usual — because I don’t actually have the books I’m talking about in front of me. Also I’m in Cambridge, MA, typing this on my mother’s laptop, and my mother’s laptop’s keyboard is totally jacked.

You hear that, Ma? Your keyboard is jacked.

So: two unbelievably great SF novels I read this fall.

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl.
It’s ridiculous how good this book is.

It’s set in a post-petroleum world. Internal combustion and electricity are vanishingly rare, wonders from the pre-lapserean world. That means power comes from muscle, which means that the entire energy economy is based on calories, or put another way, it’s based on food. Growing it, obtaining it, eating it, and finally turning those calories into kinetic energy via muscles. Almost everything runs on muscle power, often stored and released in the form of high-tech springs.

Meanwhile global warming is in full cry, and bio-engineering has run amok. Altered beasts are everywhere, their DNA dickied with to make them stronger, and the world has been ravaged and ravaged again by super-plagues, designed and released, accidentally or on purpose, by mega-bio-conglomerates.

Anything happening anywhere in such a world would be de facto interesting. As it happens we are in Thailand, which has remained largely, proudly independent from the super-power-dominated global calorie economy. We’re hanging with Anderson Lake, an agent for an American bioconglomerate, who’s after some sweet genetic stock the Thai are hoarding in their private seedbanks.

Anderson runs into Emiko, the windup girl of the title. She’s a New Person, a genetically engineered human, designed by the Japanese to serve her non-vat-grown masters. (Also to be sexy, though her bizarre windup gait makes her a perverse turn-on.) She’s both less and more (I’m not saying how) than human, trapped somewhere between person and toy. But she longs, like the velveteen rabbit, to be real.

Bacigalupi‘s vision is almost as rich and shocking as William Gibson’s vision was in 1984 (he also has Gibson’s neo-noir approach to plotting). I long to affix a -punk suffix to it, though I’m not sure what goes in front. Agripunk? Biopunk? There are things I don’t understand about this book, like why there’s no solar power, for example, or for that matter how the hell you pronounce the author’s double-jointed Italianate name. But I don’t care. I hope he writes 10 sequels explaining why.

Cory Doctorow, Makers.

Not only does this book have more stories in it than most novels, it has more business plans in it than most businesses.

We’re in America, in the future again. A nearer, more recognizable future than in Windup, but still the future. Businesses based on conventional, centralized R&D and manufacturing are collapsing under their own weight, and in their place rises up a new distributed paradigm: garage-based, micro-funded hackers who create new products on the fly out of trash and off-the-shelf components, and manufacture them using ultra-cheap 3D printing. They ride the product till knockoffs and market pressures flatline their profit margins, then they come up with something else.

Perry (small, waspishly charming) and Lester (large, affably charming) are two such hackers, whose brains work faster than their 3D printers can print. They create not just a new product every 10 seconds, but a whole new economy around them and people like them.

Speaking as a dude who’s into tech and yet cannot code and has average mortal math skills, and who as a result has never made anything in his life except letters on a screen, I have a deeply romantic love of engineers and hackers. I have never seen that love expressed so purely and burningly as Doctorow does in Makers. And incredibly, Doctorow actually works out his creations’ creations and lets you watch Perry and Lester hack them together before your eyes.

And yet Makers isn’t rosy-glassed technophilia. Doctorow balances his intense, romantic techno-crush on Perry and Lester by following them further and further into the new economy, which, as it gets older and bigger, crashes and is co-opted again and again, which Perry and Lester don’t deal especially well with.

It’s not a perfect book. Doctorow is restless inventive, and sometimes his inventions carry him away into what feel like side-shows – I was more interested in what’s going on in the workshops and garages than in Doctorow’s ideas about a new and startlingly effective treatment for obesity, which has unexpected and ultimately disastrous consquences. But I was never tempted to put the book down. There’s a superhuman energy and intelligence to Makers that I haven’t seen since mid-period Sterling. Perry and Lester wouldn’t have looked out place chasing storms in Heavy Weather.

Seriously, check it out. And if this review isn’t enough, check this out: it’s free.