At the cost of using a cliché: I love it when a sci-fi book really becomes a window into the future. Isn’t that why we read sci-fi at all, to know What Will Happen? Good writers of science-fiction are like prophets.

It’s been a while since a book about the future scared me with its sense of possibility (probability?). Winning both the Nebula and Hugo Awards was well deserved.

I wonder how much my reaction to the book relates to the fact that I work in the renewable energy sector. Energy is even more central in Bacigalupi’s world than it is now. He created a “calorie economy”, where every energy unit is accounted for and everything is evaluated according to how much it consumes.

The story is set in a future Thailand, one of the last countries remaining above water (literally and metaphorically) after several plagues have killed most plants and rising sea levels cover much of the planet’s surface. The Thais has managed to endure by stubbornly using dams and pumps to hold back the rising waters, and maintaining a hidden seed bank which provides new genetic material for food engineering.

As you can imagine, the all-powerful biotech companies are not happy about this last point. They’ve been able to monopolized most of the world’s food supply by engineering plant species that can’t reproduce and ensuring that countries hard-hit by plagues are now completely dependent on them. Plagues, by the way, caused by the biotechs themselves – build a vegetable to resist a bug and the bug adapts, build a super-vegetable and you’ll get a super-bug.

It’s a harsh world and Blade Runner came to mind several times, as well as classic noire movies. It was such a well created atmosphere of impending environmental doom that in the couple of times where a fossil-fuel car makes an appearance I was as shocked by the waste of energy as all characters.

But although the biggest asset of the book is its world-building (can we use this for sci-fi as well as fantasy?) the four characters it follows are well-developed and their personalities have compelling shares of grey. Actually, in a book full of over-arching topics, Bacigalupi gets brownie points for making the individuals, fueled by very personal motivations, start macro-level changes. The unexpected maverick is a plot device I usually love.

Anderson Lake was the one that really caught my eye. He’s a “calorie man”, an agent of one of the powerful agricultural companies based in Des Moines. He is working undercover to locate the Thai secret seed bank in order to diversify the his company’s contaminated gene tool. His life gets more complicated when he meets “windup” Emiko, a genetically manufactured person designed to serve rich Japanese men, geisha-style.

Whenever I read dystopian stories I’m always afraid of the ending. The ones where everything changes don’t usually sound believable and the ones where there’s no hope (1984) leave me… hopeless. So even more brownie points to Bacigalupi for the creative resolution of this story.

It was the perfect book to read while in Bangkok. Here’s a great description of the future city:

The sun peers over the rim of the earth, casting its blaze across Bangkok. It rushes molten over the wrecked tower bones of the old Expansion and the gold-sheathed chedi of the city’s temples, engulfing them in light and heat. It ignites the sharp high roofs of the Grand Palace where the Child Queen lives cloistered with her attendants, and flames from the filigreed ornamentation of the City Pillar Shrine where monks chant 24-7 on behalf of the city’s seawalls and dikes. The blood warm ocean flickers with blue mirror waves as the sun moves on, burning.