Earlier this week you may have read the announcement that Universal is developing a remake of Weird Science. That particular project never crossed my mind for Hollywood! Adapt This, but it actually has a sliver of commonality with today’s installment. While not exactly a household name, author Paolo Bacigalupi has quickly risen through the ranks of respectable sci-fi writers and, like all good sci-fi, his stories are both visually striking and contextually relevant to contemporary issues. Set in 23rd century Thailand, Bacigalupi’s award-winning debut novel takes place in a world drastically altered by global warming, devoid of most fossil fuels and ravaged by worldwide failures of genetically-modified crops. Sound familiar? Hit the jump for more. Hollywood! Adapt this: The Windup Girl.
It’s hard to believe while reading it, but The Windup Girl is Bacigalupi’s debut novel. It’s so incredibly vivid yet strikingly topical that you’d think the guy had been churning out long-form stories for years (most of his formative work came in the way of award-winning short stories). Others had the same reaction as Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl was awarded the Hugo, Nebula, Compton Crook and Locus awards.
The story takes place in 23rd century Thailand, specifically in Bangkok, a capital city that now sits below sea level and is protected from flooding only by levees and continually running pumps. The energy that runs the city is derived neither from the fossil fuels that are at the center of numerous debates today, nor the renewable sources that many hope will bring energy independence in the future. Instead, work is provided through manually-wound kink-springs that store energy supplied by manual labor of humans or megodonts – giant genetically-modified elephants – to be released at a later time (almost like a battery that uses kinetic rather than chemical energy). Like much of Bacigalupi’s work, this world is also in the grip of dominant mega-corporations that control, genetically-modify and distribute their own brands of food (ie Monsanto). They control their market through “gene-hacked” seeds, bioterrorism, privately-owned armies and economic hitmen known as “calorie men.”
Now that we know the setting, let’s take a look at the players. The major forces in The Windup Girl are the child queen’s regent, the chief of the Environment Ministry and the chief of the Trade Ministry. Each of them have their own agendas and their decisions ultimately decide the fate of Bangkok. They’re also manipulated in turn by the book’s more active characters: Anderson Lake, an economic hitman for AgriGen who is in Thailand under the pretense of running a kink-spring factory that’s developing a revolutionary type of spring, but is actually searching for Thailand’s incredibly lucrative seedbank; Hock Seng, Lake’s Chinese manager of the company, an embezzler and opportunist who is trying to reclaim his former fortune; Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, the “Tiger of Bangkok” and upright captain of the Environment Ministry’s armed enforcement wing; and finally Emiko, the girl for whom the book is titled, a humanoid GM organism used as a slave, genetically programmed to seek and obey a master. The plot expertly weaves the stories of these characters and more throughout a tale of espionage, corruption, rebellion, corporate greed and much, much more.
To say The Windup Girl is a many-layered and complex story would be an understatement; it makes Cloud Atlas look like a simple bedtime story. Certainly some subplots would have to be trimmed down or cut out entirely to accommodate a tolerable run-time, but there is plenty of meat to chew through. The central themes of Lake’s search for new sources of untainted calories in this world saturated by bioengineering is in direct contrast to Jaidee’s staunch defiance in the face of the Trade Ministry’s lowering of the barriers preventing foreign intrusion on their nation’s agriculture. Emiko’s quest for self-discovery in a world populated by those who would use and abuse her ties in perfectly with the Seng’s own tale as he searches to regain his former glory and to be reunited with his own people. And like all great science fiction, The Windup Girl is a perfect example of cautionary tale of a world suffering because of short-sighted machinations of humanity’s own design.
Paring down The Windup Girl to its most essential, yet manageable, components would be an absolute chore for a screenwriting team but there is a wealth of story to choose from. What was most striking about Bacigalupi’s work wasn’t just the level of detail and complexity in the plot, but the richness and vitality of his future world. When I think of big sci-fi spectacles, I instantly think of the Wachowski Siblings, Ridley Scott and Guillermo del Toro; this is not the work for them. The Windup Girl would need striking visuals of course but also a deft hand when it comes to storytelling and character development. The visuals should be allowed to amaze an audience and then disappear into the background. There are plenty of places to let the imagination go wild in Bacigalupi’s world, especially with the book’s technology and final climactic scene, yet it all feels so lived in that to make the aesthetics stand out more than the characters would detract from the story. Therefore, I’d prefer someone like Children of Men’s Alfonso Cuaron or The Fountain’s Darren Aronofsky.
Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is one of those exemplary works of sci-fi that is, unfortunately, all too often lost in the clutter of the next great young-adult craze and drowned out in a storm of vampires and werewolves. It’s advanced reading meant for a mature mind and, as such, would demand the same from a movie-going audience. That doesn’t happen successfully too often these days. Bacigalupi’s work is more in line with William Gibson than, say, Michael Crichton as far as commercial appeal and ease of adaptability goes. But I’d sure love to see The Windup Girl come to life on screen, even if it is just a pipe dream.
Fans of Bacigalupi, please sound off in the comments below. For those who’d like to know more about the author and his works, just click the appropriate links. For next week’s installment of Hollywood! Adapt This, we’ll be sticking with literature. It’ll be from an author you know (George R. R. Martin) though obviously not from the books he’s best known for. Whatever could it be…