The moon mysteriously breaks into seven pieces, destroyed by a traveling black hole or some other unexplained anomaly. At first everyone is just kind of puzzled, but not too concerned. Then, after two of the pieces collide and one breaks, astronomers realize the implications of this unstable gravitational system. The collisions will become more and more frequent, until in about two years there will be so many moon rock meteors entering the Earth’s atmosphere that ambient temperatures worldwide will rise to several hundred degrees. This is what they call the “Hard Rain” and it is not good news for life on Earth.
The book has three parts – one during the preparation for the Hard Rain, the second during the Hard Rain and a few years after (until humanity gets to safety) and the final section about 5000 years in the future, just as mankind is starting to repopulate the stabilized Earth. (I agree with reviewers on Amazon and elsewhere – part 3 is kind of weak; interesting “future history” and some cool mega-engineering projects wrought by our spacer descendants, but the storyline is pretty predictable and ho-hum.)
In its final two years, Earth puts together plans for a “Cloud Ark” of spacecraft, centered on the International Space Station, which will preserve humanity while everyone else dies. Initially I thought it was odd to try escaping high velocity space rocks by going into space, but I guess it kind of makes sense: if you are directly hit by a bolide, whether on Earth or in a spacecraft, you are dead. But, even if many bolides miss you directly, you still get toasted on the Earth due to atmospheric heating. Too bad. So space it is, where at least some of the “arks” will not get directly hit by a bolide.
Pretty soon after the hard rain starts, the ark kind of falls apart, thanks mainly to the interference and ignorance of the ex-President of the USA*. Annoyingly, she is still playing old world politics when the remnants of humanity need unity and the brains in charge in order to survive. Most of the arks split off from the ISS lead and eventually run out of food and turn to cannibalism. The ISS crew ends up seeking shelter in Cleft, the old core of the moon, a voyage which takes several years because orbits and mass. (I like Stephenson’s explainy-ness! Really, I do.)
[* Julia Bliss Flaherty “JBF” – I felt she was modeled on Hillary Clinton, but a bit younger. Two other characters had pretty clear real-world models: Dr. Doob, astronomer and “science popularizer” = Neil Tyson Degrasse; Sean Probst, .com billionaire turned space startup CEO = Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos.]
Once they finally reach the relative safety of Cleft, there are only eight survivors – all women. Game over for humanity? Not quite … luckily Moira, a certified genetics genius, is one of the eight and evidently reproduction is a piece of cake even with no males involved. Happy day! In about a fifteen minute pow-wow (eh, it’s only the future of humanity, no big deal), the gals decide to each genetically modify their offspring to introduce new traits. (Hmmm… kind of just boosting the population might be in order before you start messing with that stuff, I think. Also, hard to believe that someone didn’t keep on tinkering over the next several thousand years – why are there still only basically seven races after all that time?)
One of the eight is beyond child-bearing years, so that leaves seven progenitors to found their own races: Dinans (heroic), Ivyns (smart), Teclans (strong), Moirans (genetic shape shifters … told ya it was cool that she scored that 0.000000133% chance of being one of humanity’s survivors!), Aidans (sneaky and counterbalanced to each of the others – Aida was the head of the cannibal contingent), Camites (non-aggressive, so as to thrive in cramped space habitats. Lame!) and Julians (manipulative schemers).
Some final observations on technology. Those on the ISS and in the Ark use cell phones, blogs, the internet, “Spacebook” … in 5000 years, they still haven’t gotten to our current state of gadgets, mainly from a choice to focus more on massive space infrastructure, but also from desire to avoid “Tav’s mistake” = wasting time with social media and etc. But, then it is interesting that Blue’s “General” is a media-conscious reporter. Winning battles is not so important as convincing people of the right “narrative.”
A grim future awaits us in 200 years or so. Global warming fears have played out and the ocean has submerged most of the coastal cities of the world. Peak oil (peak fossil fuel, really) has come and gone a long time ago – the “Expansion” era of cheap energy, that wasteful orgy of consumption in the midst of Eden, has been supplanted by the agonizing “Contraction,” where scarcity is common and globalization is once again a distant dream. But the worst part is the horror brought about by mankind’s tinkering with genetics and biology. There are gruesome manufactured plagues, possibly used as weapons of war but long since mutated out of control. Then there are the windups, genetically modified New People, created by the mysterious, “calorie surplus but labor shortage”-ed Japanese. Finally the generippers of the despised calorie companies of the Midwest Compact out of Des Moines create crop-destroying diseases, only to market resistant strains of foodstuff product a short time later, sold at maximum profit. A man must eat and will pay any price, if possible.
If this back story isn’t compelling enough, our story takes place entirely in exotic Bangkok, Thailand. The Thais have continued their knack for independence, surviving by cutting themselves off from the rest of the world and entrusting the protection of the nation to the brutal but efficient Environment Ministry, whose “white shirts” monitor the many plagues, wiping out whole villages if necessary to stop the spread. However, now a new Expansion is brewing in the world, powered by clipper ships, kink-springs (kinetic energy “batteries”), megodonts (resurrected and enlarged mastodons), and the like. The Trade Ministry is the main rival to Environment; Trade wants to open up to the world, while Environment resists the unnecessary danger.
Emiko, the windup girl of the book’s title, was taken to Bangkok by her Japanese master as a sort of “secretary with benefits.” When his business is finished, he leaves her behind since he can upgrade to a new model back in Japan for a lower price than it would cost to pay for her ticket back home. He has a soft spot for her, so rather than turn her in to Environment to be mulched (windups are technically illegal in the country), he sets her free. Effectively a non-person, Emiko’s limited options land her as a curiosity in a whorehouse. <A word of warning: a handful of rather graphic scenes in this book.> When the extreme abuse from one patron is too much to handle, she snaps with the realization that her future holds nothing else. She murders the man, plus a few others along with their bodyguards. With her bare hands. Turns out the windups have quite a few genetic upgrades, which usually are of no danger due to their genetically-dictated obedient nature. The patron happens to be an important figure in the government, and his murder touches off all-out war between Trade and Environment, each accusing the other of sending a military windup on an assassination mission.
There’s a pretty incredible set of chapters describing several characters’ struggle to navigate the city in the midst of military lockdown and violent rioting. The action is quick-moving and hard to comprehend, incredibly chaotic. Safety is elusive and ephemeral. In the midst of it are Hock Seng’s flashbacks of the Green Headbands radical Islamist uprising against the Malayan Chinese. While riveting, it is sad to think that similar stories might be playing out now in Syria and recently in places like Egypt, etc.
This is a very interesting sort of environmental science fiction. Science fiction is great for extrapolating a few current avenues of technological progress far into the future and seeing what comes out. I’ve already commented elsewhere in this blog how a lot of 50’s sci-fi is fixated on a future full of atomic technology, since that’s what was new at the time. More recently we have cyberpunk and “singularity” science fiction. But the “The Windup Girl” is part of something new – wikipedia calls it Biopunk: “subgenre of cyberpunk fiction that focuses on the near-future unintended consequences of the biotechnology revolution following the discovery of recombinant DNA.” Combined with the exhaustion of cheap energy, it’s a compelling, albeit depressing, vision of the future.
There’s an interesting insight from Gibbons, the generipper secretly helping the Thais. He sees windups as the natural path for human evolution – it’s easier to breed in resistance to plague and adaptation to changing environmental circumstances that to try and control those plagues or the environment. He sees this as the continuation of nature’s evolution – which after all has also simply been the adaptation to changing conditions, albeit on a much slower time scale.