Monthly Archives: September 2013

Review: The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi

There is a scene early in Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel The Windup Girl in which a giant, bioengineered elephant (a “megodont”) goes on a rampage. The people near the animal scatter in fear. That’s how you’ll fear for the first hundred pages of the book, as Bacigalupi drops you into late twenty-second century Bangkok and tramples you with his Big Ideas.

The future Bacigalupi envisions is a grim place. Global warming has forever altered the landscape; Bangkok is preserved only by giant pumps that keep the sea from flooding the city. The end of oil led to “the Contraction,” the collapse of the global economy and the old political order, including the United States and the European Union. Corporations bent on profits at any cost have unleashed on the world bioengineered plagues that have ruined entire ecosystems.

Khlong Toei Harbor, Bangkok, as seen by plane. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Khlong Toei Harbor, Bangkok, as seen by plane. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Bacigalupi’s characters vie for power against this grim backdrop. Anderson Lake, corporate shill, is looking for a way to open the Thai market to his company’s produce. Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee from Malaya, is trying to rebuild the shipping empire he lost when his countrymen were butchered by native Malaysians. Emiko, the titular “windup girl,” who takes her nickname from the stuttering movements programmed into her bioengineered DNA, seeks a home. But nothing comes easy to anyone in Bacigalupi’s world, and one would be hard pressed to separate the winners from the losers.

Bacigalupi does not make it easy for the reader. The narration is not intrusive, taking for granted the facts of the world of The Windup Girl. The effect is disorienting, which is as it should be: It’s part of Bacigalupi’s Big Idea to confront the reader with the world we’re all helping to create every day. And yes, it’s horrifying not because it’s so alien, but because it’s so recognizable. Still, the shifting perspectives, from Anderson to Hock Seng, and so onward, quickly situate the reader. Indeed, by revealing the knowledge of what humanity has done to the world throughout the book, rather than with an introductory chapter, makes the story more discomfiting. The reader knows that, with each turn of the page, some gruesome new revelation is at hand.

Bacigalupi is at his best when setting the scene. If there is a weak point in The Windup Girl, it’s the plot, which comes unwound like the springs that are manufactured at Anderson’s facility. The story heads one way and then another, never quite resolving into a cohesive unit. It may be that Bacigalupi was trying to follow too many characters, or it may be that his Big Idea was too big to fit into less than 400 pages. The reader gets the sense that the story is meandering. Still, given the scope of the book, concern over the plot is a minor quibble. After all, Bacigalupi’s characters are little people adrift on the currents of history. It’s not surprising that events pan out in ways that neither the characters nor the reader could have anticipated.

Bacigalupi followed The Windup Girl with two spiritual, if not direct, successors. Both Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities, which are young adult titles, have shades of The Windup Girl, including some graphic violence, but they lack some of the nuance of Bacigalupi’s first book. Highly recommended for fans of dystopian science fiction.

Review: Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It, David M. Ewalt

Prefatory note: I have never played Dungeons & Dragons. My knowledge of the game is theoretical rather than experiential. David M. Ewalt, in Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It, aims to tell the history of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and provide insight into gamer culture. Despite its subject matter, Of Dice and Men is intended less for gamers than it is for non-gamers, who are less informed about the game and, often, inclined to sneer at players. Ewalt, a talented writer and senior editor at Forbes, largely succeeds, though, as a result of his “high level” approach, tends towards breezy prose and a certain shallowness. Of Dice and Men is more a celebration of the game and an apologetic for its players than it is a true exploration of D&D and its role in American pop-culture.

Ewalt approaches his subject matter in three ways: The history of D&D; stories about players; and his personal experiences and observations. Ewalt’s history of the game is simultaneously the most interesting and the most frustrating aspect of the book. After a perfunctory explanation of the game’s deep background in the war games of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ewalt moves on to tell the story of Gary Gygax, (co)creator of D&D, and his failed company, TSR. Readers will find fascinating the early history of D&D as it emerged, unsurprisingly and appropriately, from peoples’ basements and living rooms.

Dungeons & Dragons game in progress. Miniatures from Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures Game and others on Master Maze scenery by Dwarven Forge. Around the dungeon can be seen many multi-sided dice, a character sheet (bottom left) and a D&D manual (top right). Note that the circular template at the bottom is not from Dungeons & Dragons, but rather is from the futuristic wargame Warhammer 40,000.

Dungeons & Dragons game in progress. Miniatures from Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures Game and others on Master Maze scenery by Dwarven Forge. Around the dungeon can be seen many multi-sided dice, a character sheet (bottom left) and a D&D manual (top right). Note that the circular template at the bottom is not from Dungeons & Dragons, but rather is from the futuristic wargame Warhammer 40,000.

Ewalt studs his reporting with quotes from the men who participated in the early development of the game, as well as Gygax himself. Unfortunately, Ewalt glosses over the disputes that wracked TSR almost from its inception and which appear to have stemmed from personality conflicts as much as they did from managerial inexperience. There are inconsistencies in reporting: Dave Arneson, creator of the D&D predecessor Blackmoor, left TSR possibly due to his lack of interest in fantasy; in the next chapter, Arneson publishes fantasy games on his own because of his interest in fantasy roleplaying. Gygax, despite his indiscretions (living in high style in Hollywood on company funds, etc.), is presented sympathetically, but his personality is underdeveloped.

One of Ewalt’s goals is the favorable presentation of D&D and its players. To that end, Ewalt cleverly intersperses chapters with bits of the game he plays with friends, telling the story from his character’s perspective, an approach that is the best approximation of game play, I imagine, that one can achieve on the written page. Ewalt introduces the reader to the friends with whom he plays the game, all of whom, he takes pains to point out, are successful and well adjusted. He accomplishes this by describing a stereotypical geek who they considered dropping from the game due to his uncouth behavior, an episode, to Ewalt’s credit, that provokes some soul searching, as nerds are supposed to be accepting of one another. (I use the terms “geek” and “nerd” interchangeably; I’m not concerned with their nuances.) The nerd tendency toward hierarchy remains, though: The point is made that D&D is collaborative storytelling and is an “active” pastime, as opposed to the “passive” consumption of television and videogames. (I’m not familiar with the psychology or neurology of RPGs v. TV or videogames and take no stance in regards to whether one is “better” than the other.) Likewise, Ewalt participates in and dismisses a LARP-ish game, Otherworld, because he already has all the fantasy he needs via D&D. (For more on LARPing, see Lizzie Stark’s Leaving Mundania.)

Finally, Ewalt discusses the role of D&D in his own life. He knows it’s a passion and is able to direct some humor at himself for it. It’s genuinely refreshing for the reader to encounter someone who is so unabashedly sincere about something in which he’s interested; snark is kept to a minimum. Still, Ewalt’s story proceeds almost as if by rote, eventually resulting in his ascendancy to Dungeon Master, finally leading his own game (and life). In this respect, part memoir, part self-help book, part apologetic, Of Dice and Men resembles Shelly Mazzanoble’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Dungeons & Dragons.

Of Dice and Men is a readable and enjoyable introduction to Dungeons & Dragons and related tabletop roleplaying games, but is hampered by Ewalt’s efforts to cover so much ground in so few pages. Recommended for diehard fans and curious onlookers.