After a decade of writing acclaimed short fiction, Paolo Bacigalupi’s first attempt at a long-form work is an exploration of a world that is a sort of anti-singularity. Where singularity fiction explores post-scarcity, in Bacigalupi’s world scarcity is the most salient and relevant feature of the time. Biotechnology harnessed and exploited by mega-corporations have eliminated all of the world’s unmodified food crops and the collapse of the world’s fossil fuel supplies have led to a society where human and animal power are some of the only forces left to propel industry (or people, for that matter). Religious fundamentalism, political radicalization, and the ravages of global climate change have resulted in a world where the only places those aforementioned mega-corporations are not the ultimate power in the land are ruled absolutely by Taliban-esque political juntas. But we don’t see much of that directly, instead we have a story set in Thailand, one of the few parts of the world that has maintained a precious level of independence and some remnants of the technology of the previous generations, balanced precariously on the edge of the collapse that has enveloped the rest of the world.
Bacigalupi walks a delicate balance between detailed and moving character studies and his deep and intricate worldbuilding. There’s a plot, here, but it’s certainly not as important to the novel (IMO) as the aforementioned elements, so they are where this book succeeds and fails. It succeeds gloriously on the worldbuilding, I think; I was fascinated by the many varied ways the people of his world replaced the cheap energy that we have all come to take so very for granted. The character development was also really well done, with each character behaving consistently and believably given the world they are left to deal with. In truth, it is that fidelity and consistency that made this book so very difficult to read, because it’s a horrible world, and these are not nice people to read about. They do what they must to take care of themselves (and very occasionally the ones they love) in that world, and as you might expect, that means they do some pretty horrible things.
So, if you can make it through the dark and often bleak world that Bacigalupi has created, this book will reward you with its depth and detail. It’s not something I can recommend to the general reader, but it was my pick for the 2010 Hugo, and I’m glad that it won.