By Tobias Robinson
I'm a reader, I'm always in search of a good book, and there is
always at least another three or four on my shelf. A good novel is
fun and entertaining, but I define a great novel as one that makes
you question what it is you're doing, or how you're leading your
life. In 2009 and 2010 "The Windup Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi took out
pretty much all of the top honours for science fiction that any one
book can, it won the Hugo, Nebula, Crompton Crook and Locus awards,
along with a few more. The story follows a number of different
characters in Bangkok in a "not-so distant" future. The struggles
of the characters, some Thai, some foreign, some who drink too much
and all who constantly overheat, are played out in a fundamentally
different, but familiar world.
Strangely though, it's a future and a context that I've visited
before. I can sympathise with one of the characters who, as a
foreigner, finds it increasingly frustrating living within a
culture that he doesn't fully understand.
As an exchange student in Germany, I didn't speak the language,
so getting through an administration system that was over 200 years
old, at a university where I didn't understand the cultural
nuisances wasn't easy. After many strange conversations, distant
office doors and blank, flat academic faces, I was happy when I
found myself enrolled in an English speaking class entitled
"Planning in the International Context".
Cultural differences and frustrations weren't the only familiar
element operating between my student days and this novel.
If I knew then what I was going to learn in that seemingly
trivial subject, I would have been far more excited.
The word "international" has a history, and we covered it from
the first European expansion until the impending doom of the
westernised global economy, caused by the peak oil fallout.
( Click - Just for fun)
OK, so it was dramatic, but the lessons I learnt were important
ones, and ones that Bacigalupi explores in his book. The success of
economies and countries were, and still are, fundamentally linked
to energy sources. The evolution of that which carries goods for
trade is a great example. This technology/equipment has grown
exponentially over time; from things like camel trains and boats,
to boats with improved sails, then steam powered engines, and
finally oil and nuclear powered ships covering greater distances
much faster. The civilisations that had access to the best and most
productive energy sources would triumph, whether it was in trade or
in the spoils of war. The crux of the subject matter was thus laid
out in a question - "What should successful post-oil cities and
economies look like?"
Paolo Bacigalupi's story didn't just answer this question with
his novel, he bought it to life. In Bacigalupi's future a new kind
of climate means that people build and inhabit their houses
differently, and a thriving genetic manipulation industry employs
thousands and shapes the whole face of a city and its region.
Energy and the consumption of it, is a prime concern to all
characters, food is scarce, and everyone is acutely aware of both
its nutritional value and potential joule output.
Bacigalupi has understood what I was taught - increasingly
expensive travel and transport puts pressure on entire cities and
economies; it also has the potential to bring forth entirely new
industries and technologies. The conflicts, potentials and
juxtapositions of trade and cultures are the setting in which he
plays out his stories. Conversations, disputes and descriptions of
how engineered algae is used to store energy in springs adds
clarity to what daily interactions would be like in a post-oil
Whether you're a doomsday sayer or believe that innovation and
technology will save the day, one thing remains - the future will
be both unlike and like the past. Like the past, because
people and countries will still be driven to trade, we'll still
fall in and out of love on a backdrop of cultural, economic and
Unlike the past, because the key energy source is dwindling.
Last year a number of Wikileaks revealed that estimates of oil
reserves haven't been inflated, they've been somewhat
Again, unlike the past because we are already changing how we
draw our energy, the ways we use it, and how much is needed. Within
our lifetime we are going to bear witness to shifts in all facets
of power - and energy is an important one.
I keep coming back to fiction for what Bacigalupi has done, he's
given the broader picture a personal story; and when we understand
the day to day implications of these broader shifts, suddenly our
present is re-orientated.
This re-orientation is something we're actively involved with
here at PIDCOCK. It's a work environment that is engaged with the
changes that need to take place in society and in the urban fabric.
There is an active interest in the potential benefits and costs of
new technologies and new ways of working. There is an understanding
that what we are doing is driving a cleaner future based less on
conventional energy sources.
The future will be the same; we'll still fall in and out of
love, build up and knock things down, but I'd like to think we'll
do it a little easier because of the way in which PIDCOCK
contributes to the forces at play.
With a special thanks to a