CriticalDystopia after the 90s- The Windup Girl
Inthe sophomore year, I took the course Introduction to Utopian Literatureinstructed by Professor Chang, Hui Chuan. It sparked my interest in thisliterary genre that is closely related to nowadays science fiction such as LittleBrother by Cory Doctorow, The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collinsand last year's Hugo Award winner The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.The aim of this research is to discuss whether these recent works (that claimto be under the utopian literature) comply to or stray away from the traditionand to conclude whether this literary tradition is coming to an end or enteringa new world.
Utopianimpulse, the urge to make the world better or even perfect, has always been oneof the centers in the development of civilization. This impulse is exemplifiedin terms of both literary works and others such as “visionary, millenarian, andapocalyptic as well as constitutional writings united by their willingness toenvision a dramatically different form of society.” (The Utopia Reader1)My research focuses on its influence on literature ever since Thomas More's Utopiain 1516. Well before More wrote Utopia, the inclination to dream of abetter world had already existed, but it was not until Utopia did agenre called utopian literature appear. Gregory Claeys “enumerate four mainhistorical stages in the evolution of the utopian tradition”: religiousradicalism in 16th to17th century,voyages of discovery from the 16th century, scientificdiscovery in 17th centuryand aspiration for social equality in the late 18th century. Throughoutthese periods, utopian literature established its tradition through elementssuch as “domination of nature in the interest of humankind” (The UtopiaReader3), description of a good society, ideal commonwealth.
Ibelieve by giving a brief review on the major works of the utopian genre,leaving out the plot, we are left with the elements of utopia. Before namingany example of utopian works, I must first define what utopia/eutopia is andwhat the definitions for terms such as dystopia, utopian satire, anti-utopiaand critical utopia, cyberpunk, and critical dystopia.
Claeys,in his introduction of The Utopia Reader, gives clear definition on theterms except for the latter two. Utopia is “a nonexistent society described indetail” which intends to be view as a considerably better society than the onereaders live. However, notice the word “utopia” has its origin in a Greek wordof both a “good place” and a “no place,” containing both positive and negativeconnotation. This becomes more prominent in “dystopia,” meaning a seeminglygood society that “the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view asconsiderably worse than the society in which the reader lived.” Another term verysimilar to dystopia is “anti-utopia” that does not present a horrible societybut a criticism of utopianism. Critical utopia is very different from thecategories mentioned above, for it contains “difficult problem that thedescribed society may or may not be able to solve,” therefore, instead ofgiving a stern judgment whether this society is good or not, it leavesquestions unsolved.
Whilethe categories mentioned above often have a clear definition. Ones likecyberpunk and critical dystopia are relatively recent terms without precisemeanings. Professor Chang Hui Chuan states cyberpunk “is often regarded ascapturing the very spirit of post-modernity” in its “comment on the post moderncondition: the predominance of transnational corporations, the blurring oftraditional boundaries...” as it combines marginal class of human andcomputers. As for the category “critical dystopia,” editors of DarkHorizons-Science Fiction and The Dystopian Imagination quoted LymanSargent's essay “US Eutopias in the 1980s and 1990s: Self-Fashioning in a Worldof Multiple Identities,” which regard “critical dystopia” as “a non-existentsociety described in considerable detail and normally located in time and spacethat the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as worse thancontemporary society” with a glimmer of hope to overcome the dystopia witheutopia.
“Utopia”has not always been the dominant category of this genre, but it prevails. Infact, it “mutated, within the field of science fiction, into something verydifferent from the classic utopia.” During the 16th century (Renaissance),we have utopian works like Thomas More's Utopia and Francis Bacon's NewAtlantis both of which belief human beings can control their destiny eitherby politics or science. With the framework of an ideal society, utopia began tomake a slight turn the late 19th, a high age for utopian literature.Works such as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000-1887, H. G. Wells'The Time Machine and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland are in betweenutopia and dystopia. In Bellamy's Looking Backward, the juxtaposition ofthe future society of 2000 as a time of peace, prosperity and social harmonyand of the author's own time (late nineteenth-century world) as a time ofcrisis and social inequality. However, under the surface of a perfect society,lies the elimination of individuality, a characteristic later stronglycriticized in works on dystopia. It becomes even more evident that what wasthought to be utopia could be a catastrophe in Well's The Time Machine.When the protagonist, the time-traveler, travels to year 802701, he encounterstwo kinds of people: first the gentle and little Eloi who live above the groundin grand buildings, and than the bestial Morlocks who habit underground livingon the Eloi, both of them are found to be human beings' offspring. A sharpcontrast of utopia and dystopia does not appear in Gilman's Herland.Still, by describing how women can form a utopia of their own and how malevisitors/intruders realize the artificiality of their concepts towards gender,such as “masculine” or “feminine behaviors,” Gilman's Herland does providea contrast to the contemporaneous society.
Dystopiatook its dominance in the early 20th century. Some of themost well know work of this genre appeared in this period. Evgeny Zamyatin's We,Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984established terrifying dystopian images that are still found in today's work.Images such as technology as a mean of pursuing sensuous pleasure, politicallanguage as a way to control the thoughts and erase history prevails in thesethree works of dystopia. Under all these horrifying images, sex, the onlycircumstance in which people are allowed to keep secrets, seems to be the onlyopportunity to rebel against the dominant political power, for example the useof pink coupon and blinds in We and 1984 and the natural birth ofthe protagonist John, instead of artificial one by surrogate mothers like allthe others, in Brave New World.
Fromthe 1920s to 70s, a category called “Feminist Utopia” reflecting the trend ofFeminism in women's movement. Women writer started to have a voice of their ownin this genre, such as Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness andThe Dispossessed, and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time.Le Guin deals with gender roles in two worlds. Especially in one of the worlds,both genders are treated equally, while in the other, women cannot becomescientists. Piercy in Woman on the Edge of Time goes even further bysuggesting that: within the group of women, there are still differences in raceand class that make some more susceptible to the others. Professor Chang Hui Chuansuggested in her lecture on Woman on the Edge of Time that by making men morematernal or blurring the boundary of male and female (e.g. androgyny,) feministutopian visions can mend the unfair world constructed upon extreme hierarchicalpolarizations.
Towardsthe end of 20th century,utopian literature started to diverge into different subgenres such as feministdystopia, cyberpunk and feminist cyborg writing, with representative works likeMargaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Octavia Butler's Parable ofthe Sower, William Gibson's Neuromancer and Marge Piercy's He,She and It.
Someargue that it was only after the 70s utopian literature that utopian literaturediscard its clinging to a “static society” and its lack of literary skills. (“Utopiasand anti-utopias” 222) Few events raised public awareness to the possibilitiesof radical change before the 70s, which were later made possible by minoritygroups such as “the Civil Rights movement, the New Left, the ecologicalmovement, the anti-war protest” and “the emerging gay and lesbian movements”from the 60s to the 70s. Eward James calls it a “revival of utopia,” whichfaithfully reflected the turbulent society. The “mini-boon of feminist utopias”is “a phenomenon obviously contemporaneous with the women's movement” as thefamous feminist science fiction writer Joanna Russ said in “Recent FeministUtopias.” People started to have an idea of utopia as a better instead of a perfectsociety. Notice the difference of better and perfect: the former emphasize theurge to become perfect while the latter stands for a static destination.
MargaretAtwood sets The Handmaid's Tale's background in a post-world war NorthAmerica, where a religious institution gains totalitarian control to create anew hierarchical society. Women become possessions of male officials, which isfound evident in their names such as the name of the heroine, Offred, namely,possession of the official Fred. Handmaids exist only for purpose of givingbirth, sexual pleasure and love is strictly prohibited in the “ceremony” offertilization. In the epilogue of the novel, readers realize that all thestories mentioned before are tape-recordings of a distant past, thereforesuggesting a brighter present or future. That is, compared to the turmoil ofthe past, we are in a more utopian state. Atwood provides a worse and later abetter society; not the worst and later perfect one.
Whensome parts of the women's movement, especially ecological feminism,criticize how the humancentric or androcentric world could exploit both natureand women together, these feminist utopian writings become “ecology-minded” ( “RecentFeminist Utopia: 74) so as to “go beyond the problems of living in the worldwithout disturbing it ecological balance into presenting their characters asfeeling a strong emotional connection to the natural world.” Butler's Parableof the Sower for example, is dated in the near futur, post-holocaust Americawhere environmental problems has well-affected the lives of human beings.Resources are sacred, while God is untrusted. How a black young girl survivesin such harsh surrounding becomes a central theme of the book.
Cyberpunk,on the other hand, is a relatively male-dominated mutation of utopianliterature. Dani Cavalaro suggests in the epilogue of “Cyberpunk andCyberculture: Science Fiction and the Work of William Gibson,” accuratedefinitions of cyberpunk are “fundamentally unstable” and opened tointerpretations, which later becomes one of the element of later works in thisgenre. A writer and advocate of cyberpunk, Bruce Sterling, tried to define theterm in different ways in his famous “Preface to Mirrorshades.” Literally,cyberpunk is a fusion of “cyber-” and “punk,” signifying the fusion of highcomputer technology and music of the low social minority.
Certaincentral themes spring up repeatedly in cyberpunk. The theme of body invasion:prosthetic limbs, implanted circuitry, cosmetic surgery, genetic alternation.The even more powerful theme of [not of but is] mind invasion: brain-computerinterfaces, artificial intelligence, neuro-chemistry-- techniques radicallyredefining the nature of humanity, the nature of sf.
Themost famous cyberpunk is Gibson's Neuromancer. Gibson’s imagination of“cyberspace” is very utopian: human beings can gain access to variousinformation, or immortality through separating their souls from bodys. It isnot only the human beings that gain benefits from cyberspace but computers,machines themselves can give birth to artificial intelligence throughcyberspace. The imaginative construct of cyberspace is very utopian. However,when big companies with power and wealth become the only ones that have betteraccess to and control of cyberspace, the world becomes more dystopian. Theprotagonist, Case, is a disabled hacker, not physically disabled, but deprivedof his access to cyberspace when he tried to steal something from his bigcompany employers.
Third,the feminist cyborg writing blurs the boundary between (wo)men and machines.Claiming that we are all cyborgs, “creature[s] in a post-gender world; it hasno truch with bisexuality, pre-odeipal symbiosis, unalienated labour, or otherseductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powersof the parts into a higher unity,” Donna Haraway upheld cyborg as a exceptionof “original unity...through heterosexual mate” (151) in both concepts of psychoanalysis.In fact, cyborgs are no longer like man, “a caricature of [that] masculinistdream,” but a “self-developing”(152) hybrid of machines and organic. With thedevelopment of biology, genetics and theory of evolution human beings arebecoming more like machine in terms of body as a container of “polymorphous,information system”(161) In Piercy's He, She and It, the title of thenovel already implied that the characters in this book could be both a man,woman or none-human all together. Particularly the cyborg, Yod, who/which isconstructed as a man is constantly bewildered by his own identity of a malerole.
Bymentioning some of the most classic works of utopian literature, I sort outsome crucial elements of utopia. Utopia contributes to the element of harmonyand design. As Krishan Kumar writes in “The Elements of Utopia,” humans hadalways tried to simulate the God by creating the ideal city with a “legendaryfounder,” “strong public management,” “elaborate social hierarchy.” and“self-sufficient” society. Critical utopias contribute to the element ofopenness and resistance to static utopia. Dystopia contributes to the elementof desire and awareness, which characters become conscious of the scarcity ofresources and freedom. Critical dystopia contributes to the element of hope.Though prospects of the future are bleak, a stream of hope still remains.Throughout the timeline of utopian literature, an utopian impulse persists inmost of the works but is presented from different aspects depending on the contemporarysocial background.
Whatis next for utopian literature? Using Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl,under a new sub-genre called “bio-punk,” as an example, I argue that theutopian literature in our time still narrates within the domain of criticaldystopia. Nevertheless, The Windup Girl represents a new mutation ofthis literary tradition in three respects: faith against science, strongerconsciousness of nationalism, and gender. Before making my argument for thethree perspectives mentioned above, I will give a brief summary to this novel.
Thestory is set in 23rd century, Global Warming has raised the sealevel, and countries are flooded. For the countries that are not destroyed bynatural disasters, most of them are disintegrated economically andenvironmentally by big biotech-companies, or “calorie companies,” puttingstrict control on the production of food. Fruits are sterile, so that only thecompanies run by American can grow them; cheap, unlicensed food, carries thehigh risk of being infected with lethal diseases. While the Thai not only seemto live in politically neutral country but also survive the flood by levees andpumps, they are in fact threatened environmentally and politically from theinside. That is, the danger of being controlled or even colonized by giantcorporations lies in the economic structures and political state within thecountry.
AndersonLake is one of the economic hitman sent by one of the “calorie companies”AgriGen, to pry into and gain access to the “seedbank” of Thailand, a place assacred as a shrine to keep the genes of various plants. The ones in power,chiefs of the Environmental Ministry, Trade Ministry and the regent for thechild queen, are constantly in conflicting interest with each other, and a coupcan happen at any moment.
HockSeng helps Anderson run the kink-spring factory out of no choice. He was once asuccessful Chinese businessman on the sea, but failed his business due to the Malaysianreligious purge of Chinese. Although living as a Chinese refugee, so called“yellow card,” in poor conditions, ambition remains in him before Andersonappointed him the manager of the factory. He plans to seize the chances ofselling his employer’s blueprint of machine’s design, and buy himself a shipwhile he fake dealing with the mechanical problems of the factory.
HockSeng’s delicate plan is ruined by the righteous captain Jaidee, leader of theWhite Shirts, enforcer of the policies of the Environment Ministry, by proper name“The Tiger of Bangkok,” who stops illegal shipping. Captain Jaidee’s uprightbehavior causes more harm than benefit and eventually leads to his death. HisLieutenant, Kanya, was appointed as the new captain. She later become the nationalhero and also the new Tiger by stopping the “calorie company[‘s]” white maleentering the sacred seedbank of the country even under the official’s approval.
Thetitle of the novel “The Windup Girl” points to the character that weavestogether all the storylines. Emiko is the genetically engineered cyborg withbody and flesh but skin made of the same material of china, the “New People,”something that is forbidden to import in the kingdom. She was once manufacturedto serve as a geisha for her Japanese owner, but as she was abandoned, Emikoend up in a brothel. With the arrangement of her new owner, Raleigh, a sex clubowner, Anderson gets to meet Emiko and grows fond or even affection towardsher. Emiko who is also trying to find a place to shelter before she can flee toher ideal world of “New People,” decides to live with Anderson. The decisionlater turned out to be a catastrophe, when Anderson is trying to please theregent of the child queen with Emiko, Emiko kills the regent brutally. The balanceof power is lopsided; a war between the chiefs of Environment Ministry andTrade Ministry erupts.
Judgingfrom the world-construct, The Windup Girl is a dystopian novel, with anear future that is worse than our contemporary world. It is, however, also acritical dystopia, since Paolo Bacigaiupi left open-endings for readers. We seea beam of hope for Emiko to find the utopia of her kind, Kanya’s loyalty to thekingdom instead of the ministry and Hock Seng’s possibility to regain his gloryfirst by reforming a family with the Thai girl.
Themind-boggling and interweaving plot is one of the reasons that it is highlypraised in the field of science fiction, but what made the novel gain aposition in utopian literature is how the author incorporates the elements inprevious mentioned utopian works and how he handles these elements in threeaspects: first, the changing attitude towards science; second, Nationalism canbe use as a tool to achieve variety in ethnicity in a novel; third, femalecharacters claims more independence even in this male dominated genre.
Duringthe mid 1930s to the time of before Cold War, in the western society,especially in American society, rapid improvement in making use of science leadsto the overall optimism towards science. Then not only was WWII ended with twoatomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the public was shocked byhuman’s power to destroy others and perhaps the possibility destroying thewhole civilization. People began to hold skepticism toward the all-positiveusage of science. After 1960s, skepticism grew into fear. Pessimism on thehuman conscience went hand in hand with people’s technophobic mentality. WhenAmerican soldiers are using pesticides to kill the crops and plants so is tohave a clearer view in Vietnam War, young Americans in state are protestingagainst this abuse of science. In Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Thailandwas under the sea level due to Global Warming, and survives through levees andpumps. It is not given a straightforward reason of Global Warming, but theindication is clear, people have already used up the petroleum last century,which leads to a giant amount of greenhouse gas and in the end to GlobalWarming. Genetic modified food can possibly contain the fatal cause of plague,infection and death. When only the ones in upper class enjoy naturally grownpapaya, most people live on the genetic modified, “gene-hacked,” food thecalorie companies provided. Nowadays, western countries, especially America,suggested in the story where Anderson is from, plunges Africa into greater fooddependency with GM (genetically modified) food, pesticide and agribusiness.This transnational cooperation takes the control of production away from thelocals and in turn uses the people in the Third World as guinea pigs to testneither safe nor environmentally-friendly technology. This problematic use ofscience brings us to the second issue: what if science could be use for a goodpurpose?
InThe Windup Girl, one the central themes is how spiritual beliefs, Hinayana Buddhism,can sustain the monks’ and the Thai’s respect for nature and protect theirnatural resources, the “seedbank,” from being contaminated by modified genes.Reading the history of south-east Asia, we realize that Thai was the onlycountry that was not colonized after the WWII, remaining independent with itsnatural environment, religion and culture still preserved. This historical background,thus, gives a persuasive reason for Thai’s anti-trans-nationalism position inthe novel.
Theethnicity of the characters in utopian literature expands and in The WindupGirl, almost every character is from a different ethnic. Code-mixing languagessuch as Chinese, Thai, Japanese, English and other illustrated fusion ofculture appear in the book. In the early 20th century, white malewas still the protagonist of the story; such as in Zamyatin's We, AldousHuxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984, women work as adim-witted beauty to be saved or the destroy the protagonist plan, and peopleof other race are not even mentioned. Till the 1980s, we began to find storiessuch as Gibson’s Neuromancer with white male protagonist with “colored”sidekick, who works as a loyal servant, willing to sacrifice for their whitefriend. Bacigalupi push this trend of reaching variety in ethnicity in utopianliterature by setting the whole story in Thailand, making the Thai the maincharacter while the white males step from the center to the boarder of thestage.
Third,the gender issue is raised not only to the extent of women, such as LieutenantKanya, claiming dominance but a machine, such as the cyborg Emiko, which couldbe a “he, she or it” demanding an identity. They no longer fit the prototypicalcharacters in feminist writings Joanna Russ categorized: “the status quo (whichwill be carried into the future without change), role reversals (seen as evil),...[and ones] dealt with feminist insight.” Kanya can fit to the category of“role reversal,” yet she does not abandon her female character and simply turninto a man but more like a career woman in our times. Emiko is an even betterexample than Kanya in terms of this argument. She (or he, or it) fits perfectlywell into Haraway’s theory, upholding cyborg as a exception of “originalunity...through heterosexual mate.” Emiko, the New Man, was design to be a sexplay toy of man, or the sexual possession of man, but it does not mean she ismentally eager to find love to unite with another. In fact, she does not yearnto be human, but we do see how she strives to prove that she has the free willof an individual. This rings a bell of A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, wherethe heroine Nora tries to prove that heredity, or genes, is not the only factorthat determines one’s life but free will is the element that defines humanbeing’s uniqueness.
However, in order to explain whyBacigalupi choose Kanya, a very problematic figure, to finish the story, wehave to look carefully into the ending. When the Environmental Ministry finallyallows the AgriGen to tap into the seedbank, Kanya stops them and kills thefirst woman entering the seedbank. Interpreting this act from a feminist pointof view, Kanya’s slaughter of white female undermines the western Feminism,which thought women in Asian countries lack freedom and are the “authenticvictims” of Eastern patriarchal society that has to be saved by westerners.Kanya’s betrayal to the command of the Environmental Ministry demonstrates therebuke to western feminism’s condescension to Asian women. That is why at theend of the story, it has to be a woman character that defends Thailand’s traditionand natural resources from the invasion of westerners.
Thestatement of Tom Moylan on Feminist Utopia could also be used here, criticaldystopia “[revive] the emancipatory utopian imagination while simultaneously[destroy] the traditional utopia and yet [preserve] it in a transformed andliberated form that was critical both of utopian writing it self and of theprevailing social formation.” Utopian literature is not coming to an end, butcarrying its tradition into brand new aspects. Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl,one of the major critical dystopian works after the 90s, stands in betweencomplying to and straying away from the tradition. In conclusion, the worknegates the notions of static utopia and hopeless dystopia mutually, takingreader into an alternative history, where the gaps between an imaged societyand the real world is bridged, and the two become for ever close to each other.