Bacigalupi envisions a bleak world here. Not only have oil reserves dwindled to almost nothing, companies went too far a generation or two back and lost control of a plague that poisons food crops. In due course animal populations have plummeted. Its called the Contraction, and the world has indeed shrank in population and land as water levels continue to rise.
The book is set in Thailand. Bangkok survives by way of a dam and pump system that keeps the ocean at bay, but the government is corrupt, its departments warring with each other in the name of the future security of the country. Imports are strictly limited and the country survives because it has the ability to engineer safe crops for its people. This is coming to an end as the Trade Ministry gains ascendancy over Environment. Captain Jaidee will stop at nothing to ensure that Thailand remains free of foreign interference. Anderson Lake represents that interference. He is an undercover 'calorie man' looking for fresh seedstock so AgriGen, a company that caused the food problem, can generate new disease-resistant crops for people and enormous profits for themselves. Hock Seng, a scheming and often desperate Chinese refugee working in Lake's sham factory, Jaidee's Lieutenant, Kanya, and Emiko the wind-up girl herself make up the principle cast.
All of the characters, even those seemingly secure in their privilege, are caught up in their circumstances and seem to have their backs against a wall. What they're seeking isn't mundane but life or death. Every chapters has the characters inwardly cursing their fate and scrabbling their nails bloody against their schackles. And yet, there's not much emotion here. Other reviewers have commented on that. There are some awful things written here. Horrific circumstances where I was grateful for the narrative distance (a first person perspective would have made me give up the book in despair, probably), but it would have been nice to be able to have some connection to them.
In spite of that I admire this vision of the future complete with its grim review of the consequences of genetic engineering. Bacigalupi fails to account for the lack of sources of energy besides the kink-springs, but as a reader I was willing to go with the information given. This book took awhile to grab me, I put it aside for weeks at a time I think, but when it did get me, I couldn't stop reading it. I understand why it has been showered with so much praise and why a sequel hasn't emerged yet.