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Content-negotiable representations

A key catalyst for the events in The Windup Girl is the power structure resulting from the exploitation of economically disadvantaged countries by multinational agricultural corporations. This subject is both timely and historical. Timely, based on the current operating scale of such ag-biotech companies as Monsanto, an obvious inspiration for the near-future world of The Windup Girl. Historical, based on the 100-plus-year-old example of the “banana companies” such as United Fruit and Standard Fruit and their exploitation of Latin American countries, depicted so chillingly in Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Such capitalistic imperialism is not restricted to agricultural companies, of course, as Eduardo Galeano’s nonfiction book Open Veins of LatinAmerica makes clear, and which, almost forty years after its initial publication, sparked a right-wing furor when presented to President Obama by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Not surprisingly, TheWindup Girl earned a place in Science Fiction: The 101Best Novels 1985-2010, by Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo, who wrote:


Bacigalupi has achieved a rare fusion of mimetic and science fictional power that fulfills all the long-harbored expectations of a certain camp of science fiction, most recently codified in Geoff Ryman’s “Mundane SF” manifesto. Hewing rigorously to contemporary realities and science, focusing on near-term futures, this kind of science fiction eschews the glories of space opera and time travel and other extravagances for meticulous blueprints of our probable paths through the rough decades ahead. (276)


The Windup Girl certainly deserves to be included among these other novels, but I nevertheless found Broderick and Di Filippo’s praise of the novel’s science disheartening. Time and again while reading The Windup Girl, I wanted to hurl the book across the room because I found its scientific fumbles so aggravating. Simply put, the novel does not hew rigorously to science. Furthermore, it doesn’t take much of a background in science to recognize the fallacies inherent in many of the novel’s faulty scientific explanations. The novel has its strengths, but unfortunately, a rigorous and accurate use of biological science isn’t one of them.

I’m not claiming that Bacigalupi set out to create a novel of Mundane SF, or that the errors arose from that impulse. Bacigalupi’s acknowledges at the end of the novel: “I am solely responsible for its errors, omissions, and transgressions.” In this respect, The Windup Girl hews more closely to the model of pulp science fiction of a half-century ago, employing pseudoscientific MacGuffins to advance its plot and scientific vernacular as a suggestive but inaccurate veneer that does not withstand close inspection (“gobbledygook” in the critical vocabulary of Hal Clement). Again, Bacigalupi has not to my knowledge claimed he wrote a novel of Mundane SF, but others besides Broderick and Di Filippo have made this claim. Indeed, their blindness to the novel’s faults suggests a desire for biologically accurate sf novels, a modern-day “wet” sf equivalent to the “hard” sf lineage primed from the extrapolation of physics and astronomy. To this end, I think that TheWindup Girl would have been substantially stronger if Bacigalupi had hewed more closely to scientific reality, the novel’s mistakes undermining its possible validity as a “meticulous blueprint” that warns of a dystopian future.

The errors of The Windup Girl are illustrative of two ways that science can be ill-used in a science fiction novel. The first and simplest is whether the science is employed accurately. In other words, is the science actually science? The second and more complex failing is in how well the science scattered throughout the novel coheres. In other words, are the scientific aspects of this world internally consistent? I explore these two forms of scientific failure below, using the “cheshires” of The Windup Girl as a jumping off point in each case. The cheshires, riffing off the fabulous cat from Alice in Wonderland, are genetically engineered cats that appear and disappear at will. As described by Bacigalupi, “The devil cats flicker closer. Calico and ginger, black as night—all of them fading in and out of view as their bodies take on the colors of their surroundings.” The cheshires are an inspired creation by Bacigalupi. The mechanics of the novel does not hinge on their existence, but they permeate its pages, present even when invisible, resonate of literary history, of how we reinterpret and reinvigorate this history into our own present, and of the unintentional dangers of genetic engineering. They are, however, for all intents and purposes, the products of science fantasy, not science fiction.

2. Say It Ain’t So (The Problem of Scientific Non-Sense)

In 1986, Robert Forward wrote the following sound bite about hard sf, echoing Hal Clement’s analysis of hard sf from three decades earlier: “There are lots of ways to make errors in science fiction stories. The goal is not to make any errors.” Hal Clement had earlier said that part of the fun of science fiction is in finding the mistakes. Here I consider the scientific mistakes of The Windup Girl. But I later provide some balance by also pointing out scientific aspects to the novel that I enjoy.

2.1. The Cheshires

The cheshires are introduced surreptitiously in The Windup Girl, an almost anonymous element of the Bangkok background: “the flicker-shimmer shapes of cheshires twine, yowling and hoping for scraps.” The reader can be readily excused for missing their initial appearance, for not pondering their potential significance. But then the cheshires reappear, this time as a nicely wrought metaphor: “The old man’s flinch is as hallucinogenic as a cheshire’s fade—one moment there, the next gone and doubted.” Through this game of appearances and disappearances, reality and metaphor, Bacigalupi struts his stuff as a novelist, enhancing a mystery that will only be answered later in the text.

I was at first enamored of the cheshires, which seemed emblematic of all that science fiction does well. Who wouldn’t love the animation of an iconic creation from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? Who couldn’t understand the impulse to use modern genetics to make this childhood vision a reality? And where but in science fiction would the actual and potentially terrifying results of such labors be explored in extrapolated detail? This is classic sf, harkening back to H. G. Well’s century-old reappraisal of a homily in “The Country of the Blind.”

But then Bacigalupi reveals the cheshire back story, one that indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of how the genetic transmission of traits is accomplished:


Hock Seng has heard that cheshires were supposedly created by a caloric executive—some PurCal or AgriGen man, most likely—for a daughter’s birthday. A party favor for when little princess turned as old as Lewis Carroll’s Alice....The child guests took their new pets home where they mated with natural felines, and within twenty years, the devil cats were on every continent, and Felisdomesticus was gone from the face of the world, replaced by a genetic string that bred true ninety-eight percent of the time.


Twenty years. Think about it. Somehow through natural breeding, a few cheshires supplant the billions of cats in the world in just twenty years. This handful of cheshires, traveling by “a few dirigible and clipper ship rides” is able to engage billions of cats in sexual intercourse, while at the same time preventing the hundreds of millions of normal cats intent on coitus from doing the same. Remember, we’re talking about hundreds of millions of normal cats and maybe 30 cheshires. These are some cock- and pussy-blocking cheshires of preternatural abilities. Even if the cheshires were profligate breeders, producing far more kittens than the typical litter size of two to five, this time scale is so far outside the bounds of possibility that it made my head spin.

Twenty years is simply not enough time even for a genetic change that confers a tremendous selective advantage. Think thousands of years in such a case. Think Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis. Bacigalupi separately suggests that maybe the success of the cheshires isn’t entirely due to interbreeding with domestic cats, that there might be a selective advantage, “suddenly entire classes of animals are wiped out, unequipped to fight an invisible threat.” But even disregarding the time scale, there is no evidence that the invisibility of the cheshires offers a selective advantage for domestic cats. Cats have promiscuously bred due to their coexistence, their domestication by humans. They are not dependent on hunting for survival anymore. They have Friskies, Fancy Feast, Meow Mix, GoCat, 9 Lives, Whiskas, Iams, and when all else fails, the neighborhood dumpster. They are petted and coddled by humans. Simply put, there is not a gigantic advantage for domestic cats in the ability to blend in to your surroundings. Indeed, such a chameleon-like property seems to me to offer a selective disadvantage: how do you react if you see a cat on the road in front of your car? You swerve. But if you don’t see the cat? Dead cat—or, rather, dead cheshire.

Bacigalupi unintentionally supports the antithesis of his argument on the danger of genetic engineering. His cheshires are less fit as pets than their domestic relatives. Even with a storyteller’s imagination, he doesn’t conceive of a more dangerous but accidental alternative to the domestic cat. Perhaps this is not surprising, as reduced fitness is the usual case with genetic variants, whether created by conventional breeding, genetic engineering, or random mutation.

2.2. Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

The cheshires are only the tip of the scientific non-sense iceberg (if you’ll pardon a metaphor that mixes furry cats with cold ice, its only saving grace being that both are transparent). The cheshires are, in fact, emblematic of a novel that is rife with scientific mischief. However, there are also plenty of positive elements as well. Here I employ the popular mechanism of thumbs up and thumbs down to highlight scientific aspects I enjoyed and those that I considered nonsense.

Thumbs up: “He bored through the excuses like a genehack weevil.” A suggestion that the weevil has been genetically modified to make it a more dangerous pest, a biological “weapon” of the multinationals. This is a more likely mechanism by which dangerous transgenic organisms might be produced (i.e., intentionally, by weaponizing an organism). The use of organisms as weapons goes back centuries.

Delany has written about the significance of language that Heinlein brought to science fiction, a phrase such as “the door dilated” implying a novel future technology. Bacigalupi takes this concept to the next level, suggesting technologies so commonplace that they become metaphor. His version of Heinlein might be, “Her pupils dilated like doors.” Others may have used this approach before but Bacigalupi does this very well, and it may well be one of his most significant contributions to the language of science fiction.

Thumbs down: “It seems to be a variant of blister rust.... But the virus is different, the protein alterations in their samples are variants.... In testing, it conforms to blister rusts we’ve seen before.” This is a description by scientists of a pathogen that arose from algae tanks and that is now capable of infecting and killing humans.

But a blister rust is a type of fungus, not a virus.

This is not a mistake that any scientist would make: fungi are complex eukaryotes and viruses are so simple that many scientists do not consider them truly alive. Viruses are orders of magnitude different in terms of size and have a completely different genetic makeup from fungi. Furthermore, the analysis by the scientists would have clearly indicated its genetic relationship to blister rusts or not (“protein alterations ... are variants” suggests that a careful analysis was made). The problem of identification is compounded when another character describes the pathogen as “a specialized bacteria” and later when the greatest scientist of the age simply refers to it as “stuff.” Never once does Bacigalupi seem to recognize that the pathogen he describes has to be a fungus, not a virus, a bacteria, or generic “stuff.”

Thumbs up: “A Japanese clipper slides past, palm-oil polymer hull and high white sails like a gull’s.” The “palm-oil polymer hull” may allude to the utility of plants for making precursors for plastics, a biotechnological approach that has been explored for decades. Genetic engineering would allow for an even wider range of such products, the main limitation being that the plant needs to produce a large quantity of a specific lipid for the approach to be economically viable.

Thumbs down: “As perfect for his work as a megodont is for converting calories into joules.” This statement is borderline meaningless, as both calories and joules are units of energy that refer to the same thing; the calorie is a metric unit whereas joule is the International System unit. This statement is roughly equivalent to writing “converting Celsius into Kelvin.” Bacigalupi may be drawing a distinction between energy in food form (“calories,” which are actually kilocalories) and energy in mechanical work (“joules”), but that’s not what the sentence says.

Thumbs up: “She pulls another cigarette from its switchgrass-cellophane box, lights it to a blue flame.” Switchgrass is being pursued as a rapid-growing, high-yielding crop for cellulose to be used in bio-fuels. A greater prevalence of switchgrass would also increase the likelihood of the cellulose being used for other purposes, such as in cellophane.

Thumbs down: “It mutates quickly, certainly, but it is fragile, and the human host is not ideal.” The scientist Gibbons is apparently able to glean far more information from a light microscope than is possible. How does one see the mutation frequency? Is he somehow able to see the DNA in a light microscope and follow it over the course of generations within a few minutes of observation so as to determine the rate of mutation? It can’t be done.

Similarly Gibbons reports that the object under his microscope is “not an indie genehack. Nothing of Agrigen’s markings.” Again, a light microscope does not have a high enough level of resolution to make such an analysis, particularly if one is looking at a virus (invisible) or a bacterium (a gray dot) as Bacigalupi’s characters have sometimes described the pathogen.

The fiction perpetrated here is analogous to that in mystery programs in which cops zoom in on a photograph, increasing the magnification to higher and higher levels, until they can read a business card or matchbook in a suspect’s hand. One can magnify an image and still not gain any higher resolution, just empty pixels. It’s the same with a light microscope.

Thumbs up: “The vacuum-sealed containers of thousands of seeds, each one a potential line of defense against their kind. The true treasure of the kingdom.” Although vacuum sealing combined with refrigeration is preferred for keeping seed stocks, vacuum sealing alone is better than refrigeration alone and easier to accomplish in the tropics, especially when moving samples away from the cooled seedbank.

Thumbs down: “Hock Seng shrugs. ‘There is a new lubricating solution, it allows the springs to be tightened to a significantly higher tensions, without breaking or locking.’” Hock Seng applies the oil to a spring being wound on a bicycle-like contrivance and gets practically effortless winding of the spring, everyone gathering around, “all of them watching with a certain awe as he cranks away at the box.” The ability to tighten the spring is so far out of the ordinary that Hock Seng recommends that, “If you chain it to a more efficient animal—a megadont or a mulie—the calorie-to-joule [sic] transfer is nearly lossless.”

Simply put, a change in the lubricant is not able to work this magic. The tightness to which a spring can be wound is limited by the thickness of the metal. A certain amount of lubrication is desirable to reduce friction, but beyond that there’s not a lot to be gained, and you certainly aren’t going to achieve such notable effects as described here. This lubricant is a convenient mechanism to advance the plot but one that relies on physics outside the realms of our reality, one that achieves its purpose with the same efficacy promised for “snake oils” of yore.

Thumbs down, thumbsup: “I cannot change the mechanics of what you already are. Your ovaries are non-existent. You cannot be made fertile.” “A strand of your hair will do. You cannot be changed, but your children in genetic terms ... can be made fertile.” Hair itself does not contain DNA; it is a fibrous protein secreted from cells in your scalp. DNA can be extracted from the cells clinging to the base of the hair, but you would not look to hair as a good source of genetic material. A realistic scientist would have suggested something more amenable such as a cheek swab. On the other hand, the recognition that changes can be made in the genetic material for a subsequent generation is something I like (i.e., making changes is not as simple as waving a wand but will require at least another generation to come to fruition).

3. As Here, So There (The Problem of Scientific Coherency)

From the evidence in The Windup Girl, it seems that Bacigalupi has read about possibilities and concerns inherent in genetic engineering, but he does not have a firm foundation on the science behind these technologies. As a result, he ignores current scientific capacities, particularly the status of genomic technologies and, at the other end of the spectrum, suggests that amazingly difficult processes are routine. To put it another way, the science of his world building does not cohere, the end result being that his near-future world rings false to me.

What exactly do I mean by scientific coherence? First, one must consider that science does not operate in a vacuum, and advancement in one area will move into other areas. Furthermore, even when not directly connected, advances will be made in not just one area of science but in multiple areas. Taken together, scientific coherency suggests that if you posit a sufficiently advanced form of one science, you cannot, without providing a reasonable rationale, posit the lack of advancement of other sciences.

Scientific coherency extends to the characters in a novel: these should behave consistently and appropriately in their response to the scientific level of their world. For example, suppose a friend visited you. At first your friend calls everyone using a cell phone but then asks you where to find a phone booth and then later insists on sending a message by pony express. The same friend travels by horse, auto, and bicycle, each time insisting that these are the most advanced forms of transit available. You could be excused for thinking your friend insane and making a discreet call on your own cell phone.

The question of scientific coherence does not enter into all science fiction novels, and many classics are dependent on a single unexpected scientific advance and how it affects the world of its day. This is the case with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and with H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man and The Islandof Doctor Moreau. But scientific coherence is a key aspect of world-building whenever you step forward in time and attempt to build a future both recognizable and distinct from our time. In The Time Machine, Wells introduces a unique scientific advance into his world but also uses this device to bring back stories from the future, their scientific coherency arising in part due to his simplifying postulation of a decay in technological wherewithal. Near-future sf, such as in The Windup Girl, may be the most difficult arena in which to achieve scientific coherency as it is most dependent on a thorough familiarity with our current technologies and their potential application. The cheshires of The Windup Girl, just as they are examples of scientific non-sense, are also emblematic of scientific incoherence.

3.1. The Cheshires, Redux

In Alice inWonderland, the Cheshire Cat bedevils Alice with nonsense philosophy, all the while vanishing then reappearing at will. When Alice complains that the sudden appearing and vanishing is making her giddy, the Cheshire Cat accommodates her: “this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.” That vanishing act, leaving nothing but a grin, has achieved iconic status.

Lewis Carroll doesn’t bother explaining how the Cheshire Cat acquired its ability because, after all, he is writing a work of fantasy. In contrast, we know how the cheshires of The Windup Girl acquired their “vanishing” ability: through the genetic engineering of domestic cats. We also have some idea as to how the cheshires appear to vanish for, as Bacigalupi describes them, “The devil cats flicker closer. Calico and ginger, black as night—all of them fading in and out of view astheir bodies take on the colors of their surroundings” (emphasis mine).

Earlier I used the word “chameleon-like” to describe the cheshire’s abilities, because this appears to be what Bacigalupi has in mind, the popular perception being that chameleons adjust color to blend into their surroundings. This occurs to a limited extent with some chameleon species (e.g., Smith’s dwarf chameleon), but the primary purposes for color change are to regulate their body temperature and for communication with other chameleons, their mutable colors serving in warning or courting displays. Nevertheless, Smith’s dwarf chameleon establishes a precedent for an animal manipulating its color for camouflage.

How is this accomplished? Chameleons make use of cells in their skin layers that contain pigments, different cells having differently colored pigments: yellow, red, blue, and brown. The location of the pigments can be altered in the cell. The cell is colored when the pigment is dispersed but practically transparent when the pigment is gathered up for storage in small, membrane-bound sacs. An array of colors is possible through control of these pigment-producing cells. For example, green is produced by activating dispersal of pigments in the yellow and blue cells while storing the pigments in the red and brown cells so that they are transparent. Notably, due to the cells being wired into the nervous system and ultimately the brain, different parts of the skin can be signaled to display various colors, accounting for the beautiful patterns.

I can conceive of two ways this type of mechanism might be exploited by the cheshires of The Windup Girl. First, the cheshires could directly adopt a similar pigmentation mechanism to that found in chameleons and change their colors to blend into their environment. However, as with a chameleon, this has to be a fairly general effect, not a direct mimicking of the background. You won’t see a pattern of buildings or traffic or the like appearing on a chameleon’s body. After all, how would a chameleon or any creature know what’s behind it? And, of course, what’s behind varies depending on the viewer’s angle. What you get is a camouflage color scheme, much like that found in military or hunting gear.

There is a second possible explanation for how the cheshires might vanish, something closer to what the actual Cheshire Cat does, and that is to become transparent. This could be accomplished by a wider use of nonpigmented cells in their bodies coupled with skin cells that possess the chameleon-like control over the pigments. Such transparent creatures are most commonly found in the ocean, there being examples of fish, jellyfish, shrimp, and squid that possess this characteristic to varying extents. You might also be familiar with the Grow-a-Frog kits; these are popular in large part due to the transparency of the tadpole. However, complete transparency is not possible. Some internal organs are pigmented even in these “transparent” creatures. In mammals, such as our cheshires, the hemoglobin necessary for oxygen transport in the blood would be plentiful, such that the circulatory system would be visible. Furthermore, because their tissues are rich in the darkly colored protein myoglobin and iron-rich mitochondria, internal organs such as the heart and liver would also be strongly pigmented. Nevertheless, I could conceive of a mostly transparent creature with a skin capable of assuming various color patterns and becoming transparent itself, so that the entire creature vanishes except for some organs and the circulatory system.

Now let’s consider how readily the chameleon-like ability to change color could be engineered into cats. Cats can be cloned; the company Genetic Savings & Clone commercialized this service for pet owners in 2004 before going out of business two years later. Furthermore, novel genes have been inserted into cat genomes through genetic engineering, a recent example being the introduction of a gene from the rhesus monkey to protect against a feline form of AIDS. But to make a cheshire is not the relatively simple matter of introducing a single gene. It requires: (1) a system for synthesizing a variety of colored pigments, each of these able to be recognized and relocated within the cell; (2) specialty cells within the skin capable of storing and releasing the pigments; (3) interaction with and control of these cells by the nervous system; and (4) optimization of the brain so that it integrates visual cues to unconsciously signal the appropriate response through the nervous system. To put it simply, the creation of a cheshire is quite complex. It involves the introduction of many new genes and, perhaps the most difficult part, the modulation of many endogenous genes so that their expression patterns are rewired early in development in a variety of cells, and all in a coherent fashion.

Of course, I haven’t even arrived at the most difficult part. All the animals I’ve mentioned that can manipulate color or that possess transparency are hairless. Chameleon-like properties aren’t found in hairy animals for an obvious reason, one for which I set the scene earlier in the subsection titled “Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down”: hairs are not cells. Hairs are composed of fibrous proteins, and their color can’t be manipulated at will. So rather than be furred with hair like a regular cat, our cheshires would need to produce long, thin cells that mimicked hair but whose pigmentation could be manipulated as readily as a chameleon controls the colors of its naked skin cells. You don’t tend to see such thin, protruding cells because they would be exposed to the external environment and more susceptible to injury. In essence, the cheshires would lose the protective function of both fur and skin.

Now, given the astonishing level of genetic difficulty in engineering cheshires, let’s reconsider the explanation given for their origin:


Hock Seng has heard that cheshires were supposedly created by a caloric executive—some PurCal or AgriGen man, most likely—for a daughter’s birthday. A party favor for when little princess turned as old as Lewis Carroll’s Alice.


The take-home lesson would be that the process is now so simple in this world of the near future that it can be turned into a party favor. For this to be the case, the society described would have to be at such an advanced level of genetic acumen that it can essentially create new species at will. And if that is the case, then the one of the main MacGuffins that drives the novel’s plot vanishes with far more ease than any cheshire. Bacigalupi notably describes the instigation of the cheshires as coming from an executive in one the world’s ag-biotech companies. But why would a company expend so many resources in searching for a seedbank of new genetic material when they already possess such a high level of genetic knowledge that they can create new organisms at whim?

3.2. More of the Same but Where It Counts

The plot of The Windup Girl does not hinge on the potential reality of the cheshires, but they do illustrate how scientific coherence, in particular an understanding of genetics, breaks down in the novel. As with the cheshires, complex genetic feats are perceived as relatively simple to engineer. At the other extreme, relatively simple genetic feats are ignored or assumed too difficult to consider. This misapprehension of our current genomic technologies results in incoherence with respect to both characters and the society in which they operate. When considering the examples below, keep in mind that a whole-genome human sequence currently costs less than $2000 and that this will decrease still further in the future. For all intents and purposes, a genome sequence should considered free information.

Eating the evidence: We first meet the novel’s protagonist, Anderson Lake, in a Thai market examining and then eating a novel fruit called a ngaw. Tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and chilies also abound in the market, all of these examples of Thai genetic materials that “no one has seen in generations.” These are specialty products in this near-future world, the ngaw being “impervious to blister rust and cibiscosis even when directly exposed ... a perfect product.” The significance of this wealth of uncontaminated fruit becomes plain when we later discover that Lake is actually a spy for AgriGen seeking to uncover the location of the Thai seedbank with its untapped wealth of genetic material.

But once we discover that Lake is a spy, that initial scene rings false and the character of Lake loses its coherence. All Lake takes from the market is that “a seedbank is close. And with it, the answer to nightshades and ngaw and a thousand other genetic puzzles.” But, in point of fact, answers are in his hand and not hidden away in the seedbank. A true spy searching for genetic information to incorporate into crops would send tissue samples and seeds from the market back to AgriGen.

Furthermore, why would Lake oversee a factory that produces a product vastly superior to anything else in the country? This makes some sense when we initially encounter Lake, thinking him only a businessman. But once we learn that his real purpose is not in the manufacture of kink-springs but rather to spy out the location of a seedbank, his business is a liability, not an asset. The kink-spring factory calls attention to Lake, as we find with the industrial espionage of Hock Seng, something that would not occur if Lake ran a more mundane business. In short, once Lake’s true identity as an industrial spy is revealed, both his business venture and his initial response to the ngaw fruit are rendered incoherent.

The disposable superhuman: The novel’s titular character, Emiko, is a genetically modified human with many capabilities superior to unmodified humans. (“Without the lesson of the cheshires, Emiko might have had the opportunity to supplant the human species entirely with her own improved version.”) But she never quite coheres for me, part of the problem being the many capabilities with which she is genetically endowed and that she is abandoned by an owner and cast adrift in the city. There are no simple ways to accomplish some of these capacities, such as the general resistance to disease and cancer, and they would probably require engineering of an extremely high degree (as with the cheshires). If these enhancements are so easy to accomplish that she is disposable, then we get the situation once again where the level of genetic engineering expertise is so high that the other engines that drive the novel don’t make sense. If difficult, then she would not be so readily abandoned by an owner.

Sequence, sequence, sequence: Whereas the ability to engineer genetic traits is overestimated in the novel, the power of genome sequencing is underestimated and lags behind how it is currently employed. We get such statements throughout the novel as, “patriotic generippers were already working to crack the code of the calorie companies’ products” and “before the ministry stole the genetic map from the Chinese.” As I indicated at the beginning of this section, the current cost for sequencing a human genome is about $2000; the cost for sequencing a crop genome is a bit higher, plant genomes generally being larger than those of humans, but not so much as to be prohibitive for sequencing by any stretch of the imagination. In addition, you need not have sequencing technology yourself. Right now there are sequencing centers scattered throughout the world, the most popular (cheapest) being those in China. You put your DNA sample into the mail and a few weeks later receive a link to the sequence.

The fact that genome-sequencing technology is within the economic grasp of everyone completely changes the rules of the game when it comes to industrial espionage. Does the genetic blueprint of the oil-producing algae really need to be stolen from a locked safe (as Hock Seng attempts in the novel)? The genome could just be sequenced from a stolen algae sample. Even now, biotech companies can sequence the special variants of their competitors and use these to create their own versions of the same enhancement.

Furthermore, if blights are genetically engineered by companies, then resistance is much easier to accomplish by genetic engineering than by searching for new blight-resistant foodstuffs. In fact, the only rationale for a company to release a blight would be if it has already engineered a resistant variety. And how do you identify what the ag-biotech company has produced? Sequence, sequence, sequence.

4. A Conclusion?

It can be argued that the defining features of science fiction as a genre are the pseudoscientific tropes used to drive plotlines. These tropes include FTL drives (an abbreviation that emphasizes its genre-specificity), matter transporters, lone genius scientists, and in the realm of biological sciences the facility with which mutations confer enhanced abilities. Mundane science fiction stands in opposition to such tropes, emphasizing realistic science and believable technology. In this essay, I have applied two broad categories of scientific failings—scientific non-sense and scientific coherence—as vantage points from which to critique the science of science fiction. It is my impression that such criticism used to be more common in the field, particularly when it came to the physics, astronomy, and astrophysics that informed hard sf. The biological sciences are currently transforming our world, the twenty-first century being referred to as the age of biology, but a realistic application and representation of the possibilities and limitations of biological sciences is still largely lacking in our sf. It is my hope that this essay will inspire authors, editors, and readers to take a more critical approach in their writing and reading and from this foundation build biological futures that are both believable and entertaining. Although TheWindupGirl is not Mundane SF, in an alternate universe it might be. I like to believe that out of a wreckage of discarded non-sense and incoherence that such a novel could, yes, still entertain.




Eric Schaller lives in Lebanon, New Hampshire.

Works Cited

Bacigalupi, Paolo. The Windup Girl. San Francisco: Nightshade Books, 2009.

Broderick, Damien and Paul Di Filippo. Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985–2010. New York: NonStop Press, 2012.

Delany, Samuel R. “Science Fiction and ‘Literature’” (1979). Starboard Wine. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2012.

Forward, Robert. “When Science Writes the Fiction.” In Hard Science Fiction, edited by George Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin. Carbondale and Edwardsville, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

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