(Posted by Evan)
The novel is set in a future Thailand that has become a flourishing kingdom after a global travesty. It is not explicitly stated but appears to be a climate change dystopia. High sea levels surround the city, kept at bay by seawalls. New York and other parts of the US are said to be underwater; the center of the US appears to be Des Moines, Iowa. Carbon based fuel is nonexistent, with the exception of rare coal power and some methane. But the real threat facing the global population is disease, that both affect humans and threaten the food supply. Food that won’t kill you is hard to come by in this world, which sets up competing interests between globalist food suppliers (calorie men) and free traders versus nationalist environmental protectors (white shirts). Invasive species can be quite a problem if you haven’t heard. Being a Florida boy (not to be confused with FLoridaMan), this invasive threat to the oranges is particularly alarming to me.
This book can be difficult to read because the author uses many words that are either of Thai origin or invented future terms that they are not explained in much detail, so you have to rely on the context to understand. In particular, the names of the diseases (cibiscosis, Nippon genehack weevil, blister rust, scabis mold) names of important societal figures (the Child Queen, King Rama XII, Phra Seub, the Dung Lord, Grahamites, Dog Fucker [yes, that’s a real character’s name, though I wish I could claim to have just thrown that in there to see if you were still paying attention] and characterizing references to people in the book (mahout, Khun, farang, fa’ gang, gaijin, yang guizi; italics seem to indicate real foreign language) are casually sprayed about as if anyone would know what they mean. As Haeleigh pointed out, this does serve to immerse the reader in the setting. Imagine if a time traveler came from just twenty years in the past and had to listen to me talk about Facebook, selfies, hastags, trolls, apps, COVID, climate change, streaming, being woke, twerking, etc. They wouldn’t know what the hell I was talking about. I’m not sure I do either, honestly. Still it unnerves me a bit to read a book like this because I like to consider every detail and how it is relevant to the novel as a whole, but in this case, it is best not to Google (there’s another one) every word not understood. That indicates to me that the book is best considered on a coarse grain scale.
The story centers around the perspectives of four characters, with chapters alternating between these perspectives.
Anderson Lake is an American business man in the Thai Kingdom, He works for a company that makes “kink-springs” which seem to be springs that allow for energy to be stored in them in a stable manner and slowly released to power machines, based on some kind of algae converted into an industrial powder coating. But Anderson’s real interest is the seedbank that allows the Thai kingdom to develop disease free fruits. He’s called a calorie man and his company seems to have developed synthetic rice, wheat and soy products. (4186 Joules = 1000 calories = 1 Calorie, the nutritional unit of energy; an impressive kink spring gives a gigajoule of energy about 280 kwh, or roughly ½ a month to 1 month of my typical electricity bill for a small apartment).
Hock Seng works beneath Anderson in the factory making kink-springs. He is a former wealthy Chinese merchant in Malaysia before Islamic fundamentalist executed a genocide of his people. He is now known as a yellow card man, a reference to the immigration status that allows him to live in the kingdom. They are lower status people. Hock Seng is haunted by his past, and seeks to use the invention of the kink springs as a bargaining tool with a mafia boss figure, the Dung Lord, to obtain a ship and legitimate trading status to restore his place as a trader.
Despite what you might expect from the title, Emiko, the windup girl, is the least present of these four characters and plays the least significant role so far. I suspect this will change significantly in the second half. Windups were invented by the Japanese to replace the people they needed for work and for military service. She is a cyborg of some sort; New People she is called, but she doesn’t have a crank sticking out of her back. Her motions are robotic, herky-jerky, heechy-keechy, but she eats food. Emiko was originally employed as a secretary in Japan, where she was treated with respect but not treated as fully human. In the Thai kingdom she is owned as a sex-worker and subjected to humiliation for the entertainment of customers. She has extremely smooth skin due to unusually small pores. In the hot and humid climate of Thailand she is always close to overheating. She's the most interesting character in the book in my opinion. It is in her DNA and training to serve, so she obeys often even when she doesn't want to. She has an internal spirit and a yearning for freedom, but at the same time feels a deep gratification from serving people who demand it of her, as it appeals to her nature and her sense of purpose. This internal conflict is captured well in the beginning of the first chapter centered on her:
And then she wonders if she has it backwards, if the part that struggles to maintain her illusions of self-respect is the part intent upon her destruction.
Jaidee is a renowned fighter known as the Tiger of Bangkok. He is a Captain in the Environment Ministry, referred to as 'white shirts'. They are the most powerful force in the kingdom as they protect it from the outside diseases that threaten the population and the food supply. Everyone is afraid of them and bribes them. Sean said that Jaidee seems to be the ‘good guy’ in the book and I agree with that in that he seems to be the only character who isn’t working a double angle or have secret ulterior motives. He just loves his country and loves being a fighter for it, even if he goes too far. Globalism vs. nationalism is a big part of the current political discussion, and there’s nothing I try to avoid more than being trendy, so I won’t wade to far into those waters. I’ll just say that being purely globalist or nationalist is dumb. These issues are very nuanced and are best considered deeply and on a case-by-case basis. The cross-pollination is the result of so much of what could be considered either ecological destruction or evolution is a good example upon which to ponder. There are always grifters behind any ideology as well.
These stories of these characters slowly begin to intersect. Anderson is pushing Hock Seng hard to get kink-spring production up to par, even though this is only a front for his caloric concerns. They need new tanks to grow the algae and have to get this imported. Hock Seng must bribe the white shirts to get this stuff in on time. But the Tiger of Bangkok shows up, takes a huge bribe at the port, and then burns all the equipment anyway. This is the main event so far, as the retribution from the kingdom, suspected to come from the Trade Ministry leads to Jaidee's wife being kidnapped in order to force him to apologize, be publicly shamed and demoted. It seems this is part of a plot by foreigners like Anderson to establish free trade in the country so they can make a lot of money importing. For those who are reading, I’ll offer my conjecture it is Kanya, his seemingly loyal lieutenant that setup Jaidee. As for Emiko, her story intersects with Anderson's as she first tells him that she had a man named Gibbons as a client, an old colleague of Anderson's in the gene hacking and ripping game to make new foods. Anderson suspects this is the key to getting the IP of the successful Thai seedbank. During this meeting, Anderson tells Emiko of a city of windups in the North. This gives her hope of a place to flee where she will not be so mistreated, with her life under constant threat. Later, Emiko is accosted by a drugged-up guy in the streets who seeks to kill her merely for being a windup. As she flees her attacker, she sees Anderson in a rickshaw on the street and runs to him for help. He helps her, although it's not clear why, he doesn't seem to be interested in much more than money, and it's a risk for him to be associated with her kind.
There are also some kind of genetically recreated elephant or mastodon like creatures called megadonts. They are created to do heavy lifting and pulling, including driving the gears of the kink-spring factory. This, along with the algae of the springs, is an interesting take on bio-fuels - creating genetic animals in order to power a city.
One theme I think is clear is the strata and worth of people in this society. As I said, windups and yellow cards are considered lower castes, less than human. Certainly windups, they are considered an abomination. Emiko's mission can be likened to the search for an 'Underground Railroad' a way she can make it to a safe haven without being killed in the process. Even the animals feed into this theme. When a megadont in the spring factory goes rogue, Anderson shoots and kills it. As the megadont's body is hacked up, Hock Seng tries to get Anderson to barter for the worth of its remains. In typical American fashion Anderson could care less. Hock Seng thinks of how much the animal is worth and how wasteful it's death will be, reminding me of so many farm animals who become wasted uneaten meat in our society. There are also strange "Cheshires", cats that formed by the breeding of a genetically manufactured cat for a rich man's daughter as a birthday gift with regular cats. These creatures now dominate the city, and are quick to pounce on the remains of dead things. They are generally despised. Looked upon almost as evil sprits. It beckons the question: are Cheshires really different from real stray cats? Are megadonts worth anymore than the price of their meat or labor? Are windups really different from humans? Do androids dream of electric sheep? That kind of thing.
Anyway, here's an old favorite. It seems slightly more fitting than exclusively because of the title, even if I only put this here because of the title, and because I really like Thursday.