Somehow, from the title, I thought this was a Steampunk novel. Hahaha. No, definitely a straight dystopian sci-fi. Probably the first true sci-fi I've read in several years, but Bacigalupi made sure it won't be the last. To start: the world building is amazing. This is a future that we can all easily imagine. Global warming has raised sea-levels around the world, disrupting crops and drowning cities, while at the same time, the supply of fossil-fuels has dried up, leading to a "contraction" as long-distance travel becomes infeasible; and genetically modified foods have led to new diseases that wipe out existing crops and spread diseases to the humans who consume them.
The calorie companies now rival each other to develop new strains of disease resistant food, while at the same time developing new diseases to sabotage their competitors and drive up prices for the consumers. Genetic modification has also led to new species, including a breed of cat that has wiped out natural cats, and "windup" humans, who have been modified to move in a jerky manner to reveal themselves as "less than human."
The setting is Bangkok, Thailand, a city that is now below sea-level and relies on dykes and pumps. Here we meet an undercover Calorie Man, Anderson Lake, trying to discover the secret of how Thailand maintains independence from the calorie companies. Emiko is a windup girl whose Japanese owner has abandoned her in a country that would just as soon use her as fertilizer. Jaidee, the scrupulously honest captain of the White Shirts, the group that is tasked with keeping disease and illegal food and power from being used in Thailand. And Hock Seng, a survivor of a Malaysian purge of the Chinese, is a Yellow Card, working for Lake, but always keeping an eye open for a way to rebuild his former business empire. The story follows each character, as they are swept along in a larger tale of politics in a new world.
The plot is larger than any one character, and it isn't about a character learning, or changing. It's more about how each character is a pawn or a leader as the political tide changes in Bangkok. An absolutely brilliant and wide-ranging treatise on problems we may soon be facing.
Trigger warning: Emiko is a sex slave and there are two extremely cringy scenes of her being raped. I still see them as necessary in that they show how Emiko is considered less than human, and in explaining her actions later in the novel.