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The Windup Girl
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2010 Reads > TWG: The Physics of the Spring Factory

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message 1: by Jlawrence, S&L Moderator (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jlawrence | 960 comments Mod
So I've seen a complaint here and on the io9 forum (they're reading the same book) about how the kink-spring factory defies known physics. I actually had an issue following the entire process of the kink-spring formation clearly enough to grasp exactly what Bacigalupi was envisioning, but it does seem the amount of stored energy a spring ideally ends up with should be a physical impossibility.

Generally I'm more forgiving of scientific gaffes in science fiction films than in science fiction books, but in this case, there are two things that made the factory not bother me. First, the goal of the factory being efficient is described as a mad pipe-dream by Anderson, so it's not like the book presents it as a miracle energy source - rather it's presented as a ridiculous project that serves as good cover for other goals. Second, the book's very vivid atmosphere makes me buy into its world in general even if it may be more surreal than scientific.

But I should mention I'm also still at the beginning - further on I might find scientifically-objectionable things that bother me much more.

What about you? Did the factory bother you? How much bending of science do you accept in your science fiction? Can other factors always make up for scientific gaffes?


Sean O'Hara (seanohara) | 2365 comments My problem isn't that the factory defies science, just common sense. Let's look at the steps involved for getting energy in and out of the springs.

1) We start with plants absorbing sun light. This isn't too bad -- chlorophyll's a horrible solar collector, but sunlight's free so it's no big deal.

2) Then we harvest the plants and transport them to a city to feed megadonts. Wait, aren't calories scarce? Why are we wasting energy cultivating, harvesting, and transporting plants that aren't food for humans or animals that humans eat? In the world described, you'd use every other form of energy before this.

3) The megadonts eat the plants and use the energy to wind the springs. Of course megadonts are going to use a lot of those calories just to maintain basic biological functions. Only a small portion of the energy stored in the plants will be used to wind the springs -- and some of that will be lost due to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Yeah, there's talk about the algae being used as a highly efficient lubricant, but that only goes so far.

4) Springs don't grow on trees. You need to use quite a lot of energy just to make them.

5) Once the springs are wound, we have to transport them to wherever they're being used. These springs sound rather heavy, so it's going to take a lot of energy to move them.

6) Then a factory hooks them up to their own machinery and extracts the stored energy. Once more you're going to lose energy to entropy.

With all the energy intensive processes required for the scheme, I don't see how anyone would deem it worthy the resources, even as a cover for other things. It would make more sense to use the megadonts to crank turbines or power machinery directly -- at least that way you wouldn't have to waste energy making and moving springs, and you'd only pay the entropy tax once.

And on top of that, there are tons of power sources never mentioned in the book. We've used up fossil fuels, but what about uranium? Are we no longer able to make mirrors for solar collectors? Have people forgotten how to build water wheels? And if genetic engineering is at the level seen in the book, why doesn't anyone create a bacteria that can turn compost into oil? If an author wants me to believe that people have run out of energy to the point that they're back to using animals for power, he really needs to address the alternatives.


Rick Pasley (hikr3) | 71 comments Sean, I assumed that megadonts, like elephants, consume food largely indigestible by humans. No caloric competition so it makes them a good power source for cheap. And they in turn provide calories to the humans when their lives are at an end. I related it to making cattle pull the wagons on the way to the slaughter house.

Also, the springs are a funky detail of this world, but in the overall scheme of things it could be any pretend technology. A spring is something that everyone knows, has seen, has some idea about so it makes the pretend technology seem more alive and real. He could have just as easily been running a new algae strain trying to produce a biofuel, but truth be told I just don't care. It is a story, make believe, not a handbook for surviving an energy crisis. This world is no different from the Ringworld or Westeros, it is just make believe and it doesn't need to adhere to the laws of physics for me to enjoy it. I understand that isn't the case for everyone, but some people seem to be taking the story to heart to an extent they feel insulted by it.

I don't even think this story is about environmental degradation anyway. I feel this story is about humanity, what it is to be human, and the horrific ways in which humans treat each other. At its essence, The Windup Girl is just a retelling of Blade Runner. The fantastical world it is set in is new and fun just a bonus. Just my opinions. Feel free to disagree.


Nemaruse Neoxeekhrobe Hulkonnowolf | 33 comments I do not like his writing style and yes there are some mistakes but I think the writer presumed certain things and was probably THINKING that the readers will do the same. So I think what he presumed regarding the factory and how it works was something like geneHacking/Ripping(as comically futuristic) and I think to enjoy the book we should do the same.


Sean O'Hara (seanohara) | 2365 comments Rick wrote: "Sean, I assumed that megadonts, like elephants, consume food largely indigestible by humans. No caloric competition so it makes them a good power source for cheap. And they in turn provide calorie..."

I'm assuming the same. But since the megadonts are in the city, presumably their food is being grown elsewhere and shipped in. Whatever effort is going into that could be better spent on growing people food, or food for livestock.


But then, I'm the sort of guy who has actually calculated how much power it would take for the Death Star to blow up Alderaan. (Let's just say, they must have a sun inside -- and even then, they'd have a brown-out when the laser fires.)


Rick Pasley (hikr3) | 71 comments Sean wrote: But then, I'm the sort of guy who has actually calculated how much power it would take for the Death Star to blow up Alderaan. (Let's just say, they must have a sun inside -- and even then, they'd have a brown-out when the laser fires.)..."

Nice! I guess I read too much fantasy because I will just accept the things that seem a bit hinky in a story like they are a feature of this specific world. Some worlds get magic or faster than light travel, other worlds get megadonts and kink spring factories. :^)


message 7: by Jlawrence, S&L Moderator (last edited Mar 20, 2010 12:00PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jlawrence | 960 comments Mod
As I got further into the book, I found myself a little more bothered by some of those energy-resource questions Sean brought up than I was initially. I've finished it now, and found it excellent overall, but Bacigalupi definitely made the issue of energy use very prevalent in the book: characters are constantly thinking about their environment in terms of energy-use, calories expended, which technologies are wasteful-vs.-what's not, etc., much in the same water becomes the obsessive denominator of analysis in Frank Herbet's Dune. Our attention is also continually drawn to the various ways Thailand's inhabitants have shaped their environment and lives to deal with these constraints.

Bacigalupi even has Anderson, an powerful employee of a corporation that profits from the world's current state, go on a passionate mental rant against the wastefulness of the ancestors (ie, us) whose ways led to the state of the world in the book (pg. 64, looking at a photo of 'fat, contented fools' next to a overflowing fruit stand).

So societal reaction to environmental collapse seems to be a serious theme of the book, instead of just a background aspect of the world, and therefore it seems fair to poke around at the concrete ways the book presents that theme.

But again, any such technical holes didn't ruin my reading. The book had strong characters, I found it gripping and moving, and the environmental theme is one of many - there's also: loyalty, fate ('kamma' + all the times characters' plans were undone by external forces), the legal and spiritual status of genetically-engineered humanoids, the dynamics of a coup, etc. It just would have been an additional strength for the technical aspects of the environmental theme to be a bit more rigorous.


Aaron Harvey | 6 comments I have to agree with Sean. The whole time I was thinking "So, it's easier to create a genetically altered elephant and have it power SPRINGS than to create wind power or solar plants? Okayyyy."

They mention frequently the heat of the sun, lack of rain and the wind in the old expansion towers. I can charge my laptop with an 8 1/2x11 sized solar panel and this is 2010. They couldn't put wind turbines in the old expansion towers and solar panels on roofs? The book clearly takes place in 100+ years in the future. And although they are a country who have closed themselves off from the rest of the world, they have and use technology.

I understand the book was trying to set a mood, making it feel much more in the past than the future, but overall it didn't work for me.


Hilary A (hilh) | 40 comments I think I'm more accepting of how un-physicsy the book is. I regard the whole generipping-but-not-solar-panels thing as a different form of scientific evolution in that world. Consider the fact that back in the day there were cars running on almost anything, but oil won out for being cheap and plentiful, and any research into say a steam-powered car etc was ceased. It is entirely plausible to me that in their world genetics just flourished while energy harvesting didn't.

I didn't really think that because it was set in the future it was necessarily set in the future of today, 2010. The setting works for me if I imagine it set in the future of our past, if that makes any sense.

Still, I have not finished the book and maybe Paolo Bacigalupi made specific references to time/places of our known past, but I think my brain filters out anything that would make me question something I regard as entertainment so that I'll put that energy to schoolwork and not books :P


message 10: by aldenoneil (last edited Mar 24, 2010 05:29PM) (new) - added it

aldenoneil | 1000 comments Hilary wrote: "I think I'm more accepting of how un-physicsy the book is. I regard the whole generipping-but-not-solar-panels thing as a different form of scientific evolution in that world. Consider the fact tha..."

That's a great point (i.e. the future of our past). The bizarro-tech didn't bother me at all, either, but I couldn't put that fine a point on it as to why. I just completely accepted the world as presented.

I've often hoped more movie adaptations would go this route. Most often when someone adapts a novel, they update the tech to match our current vision of the future. I mentioned this in the old forums sometime back, but I'd love to see a faithfully adapted Neuromancer, for example, keeping the 1980s-future-tech intact; something akin to Flash Gordon or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.


Aaron Harvey | 6 comments I could buy that argument if other things in the book were equally unrealistic, but you can't have a believable world with only some scientific accuracy, especially when what is wrong would be required to get to what they did right. You can't get to genetic manipulation without knowing about conservation of energy. I'd actually buy the world more if it was 'magic' and not science. Sadly, it wasn't just the 'science' that bogged this book down.


message 12: by Ben (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ben | 116 comments Count me as one of those who found the way the energy crisis played out as somewhat unbelievable. The fact that there is no mention as to why there is no solar, wind, water, or nuclear power was odd.


message 13: by George (new)

George Van Wagner (gvdub) | 26 comments I think you have to dive a little further into Bacigalupi's assumptions. Solar Cell manufacture is fairly fossil fuel intensive. The post-contraction world he's postulating has virtually no fossil fuels and the calorie crisis is such that things like corn and soy that might have otherwise been grown for oil and plastics either aren't available or are more valuable as a calorie source. Given the bio-engineered agri-plagues that have made most of this world dependent on gene-hacked sterile foodstuffs, assume that most human edible foods may only be able to grow in specific areas and megadont food may be able to be grown in areas that human-edible food cannot. I don't think the scenario is as far out of balance as some have implied.


message 14: by Ben (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ben | 116 comments Why is solar cell manufacture fossil fuel intensive?


message 15: by Ben (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ben | 116 comments Also, one really big problem with the science in the book is the use of beasts of burden. Given the concern over global warming on display in the book, it is odd that they would use large animals as an energy source given that livestock is as bad or worse a source of greenhouse gases (methane) as the burning of fossil fuels.

And another thing, if energy really was so scarce, would anyone waste the energy in using a kink spring scooter when they could just use a bicycle?


message 16: by George (new)

George Van Wagner (gvdub) | 26 comments @Ben - most modern solar cell manufacture, besides being fairly energy intensive, uses a lot of plastic as material. Plastics are mostly made from fossil fuel sources. Large scale manufacturing requires cheap energy. With oil gone, you're missing both energy and raw materials necessary for manufacturing that type of product.

Also, if oil is gone (or prohibitively expensive), draft animals are going to be the way to get big stuff moved around. The teak spindles, for example, would need the equivalent of a semi-truck to move, hence the megadonts. As far as kink spring scooters, I imagine it would be for the same reason why some people drive their car three miles to work instead of walking or riding a bike - because it's a status thing.


message 17: by Sean (new) - rated it 2 stars

Sean O'Hara (seanohara) | 2365 comments George wrote: "I think you have to dive a little further into Bacigalupi's assumptions. Solar Cell manufacture is fairly fossil fuel intensive. The post-contraction world he's postulating has virtually no fossil ..."

According to the interview he did with io9, he didn't think things out that much. He just decided to ignore solar power because it got in the way of the story he wanted to tell.

"Basically, I took all the different alternative energy sources that got in my way, marched them out back, and shot them through the eye with a spring gun (not much gunpowder in TWG, either).

I had to do in oil shale, tar sands, hydrogen fuel cells, wave generators, and a bunch others, too. Bloody work, I'll tell you.

But I kept coal because it's dirty and stupid and plentiful, and we use a lot of it.

At root, there was an aesthetic I was interested in, and I did everything I could to reinforce that. If you look at it through the lens of predictive science fiction, this story will definitely fail for you."


message 18: by Kate (new)

Kate Craig-wood | 1 comments Personally I think it is important for a sci-fi book to have some logical consistency in its future tech, but I don't think Bacigalupi's vision is too unbelievable.

The alternatives to giving cellulose-based feedstock to herbivores (I'm assuming megadonts are ruminants) to generate kinetic energy would likely be burning it. Gassification plants (eg. wood fired) achieve up to 70% efficiency, but animals can do a lot better than that, and these ones have been genetically engineered for efficiency. There is the issue of downtime, but even accounting for that I think it would be a pretty optimally efficient way to convert unwanted plant matter into kinetic energy. Further, as we discover, trees have almost entirely been wiped out - at least apart from WeatherAll wood, but that may not be fast growing.

Additionally, while it would certainly be more efficient to drive things with the megadonts directly, but there are many needs for a high-energy density storage mechanism.

Why not electricity and solar? Electricity storage systems (eg. batteries) can be quite efficient (though solar cells are not, the sunlight is clearly plentiful), but require lots of precious raw materials and are very energy-intensive to manufacture.

An obvious alternative to kink springs for high energy density storage would be using electricity to hydrolyse water into hydrogen and oxygen (ie. fuel cells). However, as with batteries, that is very high tech, and the infrastructure needed to support a hydrogen economy would likely be beyond the Thais in the book.

Flywheels would be another good option, and can be fairly low-tech, but unless you have advanced ones using frictionless bearings and vacuum containers they steadily lose energy.

However, I suspect that given the reliance on there being limited tech to avoid some of the above, the advanced materials manufacturing to develop kink springs would also be beyond them (1 gigajoule in the palm of your hand is a lot), but there is enough room for plausibility.

In summary, I think it is important for stuff to be believable, but even when stretching scientific credulity a good author gives you room to explain away any niggling doubts.


message 19: by Firstname (last edited Aug 22, 2013 10:19AM) (new)

Firstname Lastname | 488 comments Sean wrote: "But then, I'm the sort of guy who has actually calculated how much power it would take for the Death Star to blow up Alderaan. "

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