Confession: I haven't read much science fiction in my life. Before I met my husband, a devoted sci-fi reader, I don't know that I had read any at all, at least not on purpose. This is what marriage does: you fall in love, swear to care for a person always, and suddenly you've let go of all your deepest-held beliefs about genre fiction and find yourself watching Star Trek: Into Darkness in your basement on a Friday night. And not hating it. And wondering who exactly you've become.
This book gravely tested my newfound open-mindedness. However, I have learned to trust the opinions of certain respected readers in my life. My sister-in-law is a librarian and (surprise) a book enthusiast, so when I received a copy of this book from her family for Christmas, it went right to the top of my list. And wow—I'll be honest here—as someone fairly virginal when it comes to sci-fi, it really challenged me. I was about a hundred pages in before I finally caught the rhythm. Some books can be humbling like that.
The titular character, Emiko, is a genetically-engineered super-human, designed to be beautiful and subservient. However, she has been abandoned in Thailand by her Japanese employer. She finds herself in a world we would only dimly recognize: the oil industry has collapsed and energy is at a premium, controlled by corrupt, American-owned agribusinesses. Crops are engineered to produce only one life cycle with seeds that will not produce another generation, which keeps the world's citizens dependent upon the companies year after year.
Anderson Lake is an American working for AgriGen in Thailand. He is a shrewd businessman, overseeing a factory that is a cover for his true purpose in the country—to seek out new plants that might help his company continue its calorie monopoly. He is drawn to Emiko's strange beauty, her stuttering movements that mark her as something other than human. Their meeting sets in motion a series of events that are both deeply personal and cataclysmic for the world's food supply.
So yeah, this is not the kind of book I'm personally used to reading. While I was grappling with the jet lag of being transported into this trippy alternate reality, I also had to make linguistic adjustments. Bacigalupi throws out foreign words at an alarming rate (though, to be fair, the setting is a Thai city teeming with immigrants from varied locales). He's also made a lot of words up, as he's depicting a futuristic society full of newly-engineered animals and modes of transport that don't rely on oil. This takes some getting used to, and requires some patience from the reader.
OK, so I wasn't able to sail through this book. In fact, it felt like my brain had to find another gear to make it over the unfamiliar, sciencey terrain. Annoying, yes, but I was pleased to prove to myself I could do it.
This must be what marathon runners feel like. I can do anything in the world!