Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl, Night Shade Books, 2010.
The story takes place in Bangkok some time in the 23rd century. Climate change has flooded many low-lying cities, carbon fuels are now rare and expensive, and the world has suffered plagues and starvation. Energy is generated by storing it in springs wound by humans or animals. Multinational "calorie" companies create genetically modified food products to withstand plagues, and there are various genetically engineered creatures and humans.
In Bangkok, there is a struggle between the Trade Ministry, seeking to increase the Kingdom's cooperation with the rest of the world, and the Environment Ministry, seeking to prevent the spread of diseases.
Many of the main characters are foreign, allowing the city and its social and political tensions to be explored from different points of view. Anderson Lake is American and owns a spring factory as his cover for his secret mission of gaining access to the Thai seedbank, a source of genetic information for his calorie company employers. His assistant, Hock Seng, is a Chinese refugee from Malaya, who used to own a shipping empire and lost everything, including his family, during a fundamentalist uprising. Emiko is a Japanese "windup girl", a genetically engineered human created to serve as a modern sort of geisha and personal assistant. She is abandoned in Bangkok by her master, and ends up suffering increasing humiliations in a sex club. The Thai characters include Jaidee, an officer of the Environment Ministry, and his deputy, Kanya, who become deeply involved in the political struggle within the city.
Themes of tradition and change are central to the story. After everything the world has experienced in previous decades, people still retain certain traditions, including nationalism. All the characters undergo significant changes as the city's situation becomes volatile. The political machinations and the resulting violence seem inevitable.
It is significant that the book's title refers to the character of Emiko, who does not seem, at first, to be central to the story. She is a variation of the old theme of the artificial person, created, used, and abused by humans who consider her less than human. The sections written from her point of view make it clear (as it always has been, to me) that sentient minds are equal, whether they are formed naturally or created in other ways (such as AIs, robots, and genetically created beings). Her story also shows the extreme humiliation some humans are willing to cause others to satisfy their own distorted desires, and the dehumanizing effect of considering anyone as "other". It is a sensitive discussion of the sex industry that shows the author's empathy and morality.
This book has won many awards, and as soon as I started reading it, I understood why. The writing is very good. The world building is impressive. The characters feel real. The plot builds in a way that shows how events result from the characters' experiences and interactions. The detailed depiction of the setting draws the reader in, creating an immersive experience not all authors manage to achieve.
I join the many readers who have highly recommended this book. It is not always a pleasant story, but it is well-written and well-imagined, and leaves the reader much to think about.