I always feel a little stupid when I give books five stars*, because I should be cranky and worldly and save them up for something that's been vetted within an inch of its life & makes me look smart. Then when I do give something like this five stars, I have a whole stupid melt-down about what it means and why I'm justified in my pleasure. For this book, all of this seriously self-indulgent flailing was helped along by the totally fair criticisms lobbed this book's way by RandomAnthony.
Lord knows, I've been on the other end of this, shrugging my shoulders while fanfolk scream themselves hoarse about The Next Big Thing.
I read this in a bit of total insanity while sweating out every single drop of fluid I could push into my body. It was ungodly hot. I was at a family reunion in New Hampshire, although it was not my family, strictly speaking, but my husband's siblings and parents. I'm naturally an introvert, and all of these tendencies get much more pronounced in a situation where every single moment of my time is scheduled into family togetherness with a family I still feel decidedly uncomfortable with. I'm not saying they are assholes or anything - they aren't - but after 12 years of marriage, two kids, and roughly bi-yearly meet-ups, I can't tell where I stand. I read, like a coward, and I read hard. To this day, I have no idea whether Babel Tower is as good as I remember, or if it's just a trick of the light that first Christmas I spent with my husband's family, reading alone on an air mattress while he slept on the couch, because while we may have co-habitated for some time, very different rules applied in the parental homestead.
So, the book. Honestly, I was worried at first, because I think usually four pov characters is at least one too many. But the movement between the points of view was balletic and smoothly unsettling as I shifted between one character and another. I'm the kind of reader - and I think maybe most of us are - who tends to root for the protagonist, simply because he or she is the protagonist, and the way the same event kept lensing through different, and totally opposed, consciousnesses really slapped me around. I guess I have to admit I like being slapped around here, but opinions vary on the matter. I also liked that these characters were anything but sympathetic, for the most part, while they were entirely human and understandable. I hate when writers seem to identify too strongly with a character, and protect them when the narrative clearly calls for blood or change, or both of these at once. Bacigalupi makes some hard choices, letting characters go when it's called for, and drawing them close in horrible intimacies and ruptures when another writer would flinch.
The other thing that astounds me, given that this is a far-future Thailand with a rich history that is clearly thought-out, is that Bacigalupi never once resorts to the egregious infodump. Maybe this is faint-praise, but for me, having just been subjected to the worst infodump of all time in another Nebula winner, I'm incredibly impressed. There were times when maybe too hard a line was drawn under the historical experiences of the character - Hock Seng's experience with the green headbands, for example, kept being referred to in this frustratingly vague and similar way - but I'm willing to give this a pass, for no good reason.
The plot's very political machinations - coups and leverage and pregnant conversations, people with knives to their throats both literal and metaphoric, conflicting motivations, motivating conflicts. I love this kind of stuff, and I love it more when a good dash of the random peppers the movements of titans. At one point, a character acts out in this incredibly brutal way, and the rest are left pointing guns at each other and wondering why this has happened. As a reader, you want to scream at them: can't you see how the political IS
the fucking personal? But that's not the way things work; we readers doodle along God-like, and all the characters, as limited as they are like we are before the story of our lives play out, cannot see in the broad strokes.
I was satisfied by this book. It melted like ice in the glass, quickly, leaving cold in my mouth when the solidity vanished. It cooled me in the heat of the day, quietly sitting on the back steps while the family moved and splashed in the kiddie pool, cooked food, talked. It's possible that introversion is a curse, but this salved me in just the right way so I could look up and engage when the time came. Five stars for that alone.
*Just kidding. I took a star away here several months hence - the flaws appeared in my mind like cracks in ice. Sorry. Still a good book though.