Paolo Bacigalupi's debut novel, The Windup Girl, is almost unbearably brutal. It is also extremely good.
Set in a future Thailand, the book follows a half-dozen characters as they struggle for power in a bleak future devastated by bio-plagues, famine, and global warming. Thailand has kept itself a functioning country through its Ministry of the Environment, which destroys all imports that might be carrying any genetically engineered or mutated pathogens. However, destroying imports tends to inhibit trade, and so there is a natural, ongoing, and fierce struggle between the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Trade. Bacigalupi draws most of his characters from these two organizations, then throws in an American "calorie man," who is a representative of one of the giant agribusinesses that control food world-wide, plus the "windup girl," a Japanese-made android programmed to do things not even she suspects at first.
The political maneuvering is constant, intricate, and all too believable. So is the inevitable violence. However, more interesting than either are the choices -- moral, practical, philosophical, emotional -- that the characters are driven to make. These are not admirable people, but they spring plausibly and solidly from an unadmirable world. I believed every word of this book, including its brutality. Paolo Bacigalupi is prodigiously talented, and I will recommend this book for the Nebula it deserves.
It's interesting, however, to note that in person, Paolo is a cheerful, engaging fellow. Nobody knows what goes on in the hidden minds of writers -- at least not until it emerges onto the page. Our public personae are not us.