It’s been quite a while since I last read a dystopian novel set in the Far East. I think the last one was Rivers of Gods, which I read so long ago I’m going to have to re-read to remember the plot. It was set in India, that much I do recall. It’s pretty undeniable, though, that most post-apocalyptic or dystopian novels are set in more temperate climes – usually either Europe or the US – but surely the tropical heat and humidity, exotic wildlife and completely different cultures would be ideal for such genre fiction?
It was mainly the fact that Bacigalupi set his novel in Bangkok, a place I knew quite well from numerous visits, that actually got me reading it in the first place. Bacigalupi teaches South East Asian studies, so I think it’s fair to say that he knows Thailand extremely well. His depiction of a post-industrial Bangkok is so believable, I can smell it from here.
This is because Bangkok has a very distinctive smell – open sewers, durian, lemongrass and pollution from vehicle exhausts, mixed in a wall of heat and humidity that has a physical force which is literally suffocating. Bacigalupi doesn’t shy away from it at all – if anything, he revels in it and the stifling heat becomes an important part of the novel.
It’s always believed that there are two sides to Bangkok – the daytime, where industry, shopping, sightseeing and religion are more visible, and the night, which is distinctly sleazier. The near legendary sex trade around Patpong Road (as well as the night markets and street food carts) is shown in all its brutal honesty – as is the corruption, police brutality and muay thai dens. The disdain with which farang (foreigners) are treated is also centre stage. For anyone who has spent any time at all in Bangkok, this is realistic enough.
In fact, the one thing that isn’t already in place is the lack of electricity. Because this novel takes place in a world where oil has completely run out (which I’ll explore in another blog post), power is provided by a combination of methane, elephant and slave labour. This is another reason why I think there should be more science fiction novels set in the Far East and/or South America – they would be more adaptable and be able to illustrate any points the author would wish to make much more powerfully than continually destroying First World economies with gay abandon.
I’ve really enjoyed reading this book. It’s totally believable and also offered me a sense of nostalgia for travels long past. And reminded me why I really hate the smell of durian.