Continuing my tour of 2010 Hugo award nominees, I just finished The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Bacigalupi has created a future world in which oil has collapsed, and power is created mostly from manual labor stored in "kink-springs", basically springs that can be tightly wound and release power steadily. Nature is victimized by various genetically engineered plagues, caused by agricultural firms that are big enough to be above the law. The Windup Girl takes place in Thailand, which has so far resisted breakdown caused by the plagues. It seems as if there could be no resistance, as most all local officials seem to be for sale.
Bacigalupi's real brilliance in this book is showing how a group of flawed, vulnerable human beings who seem ready to sell each other out can somehow turn the tables on outsiders looking to break them. Plots are foiled not by heroes, but by more ordinary, even mendacious people finding courage at critical moments. His short stories seemed scarily prescient. This book doesn't have that impact (it repeats the same threats many times), but the insight into a very different culture and its strengths, deeply embedded in its weaknesses, is powerful. Read as much of Bacigalupi as you can.