Book Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Two hundred years from now we’ve run out of fossil fuels (mostly – some countries are still scrapping over the last few remaining lumps of coal), global warming has raised the world’s ocean levels and Thailand is a world superpower that has a complex system of pumps stopping the land from flooding. Foodstuffs are plagued with genetic diseases, pests and bio-engineered rot the result of destructive genetic modifications. The world is powered by giant springs used to store energy which are turned by GMed mammoth-type livestock called Megadonts. Multinational businesses called “Calorie Companies” who use genetic engineering and bioterrorism to maintain their power now rule the world. Governments are mere puppets for their global plans to maintain the status quo of huge profits and a tightly controlled market. This is a world in which the free market fundamentalists have won and humanity seems to lurch from crisis to crisis.

Into the story come two very different people. The first is Anderson Lake, an employee of one of the Calorie Corporations who has travelled to Thailand to discover the location of a stockpile of seeds and bring it under the company’s control. Seeds are strictly controlled and are sterile so that they cannot be cultivated; the seedbank can change all that and give the Thai government an edge.

The second character is Emiko, the titular “Windup Girl”. She is a genetically modified plaything, slave and sex toy. Anderson and Emiko are thrown together and find themselves at the centre of a brutal power struggle between two warring factions.

So now we have another -punk to add to the science fiction subgenre. The Windup Girl is one of only a handful of books in the subgenre of Biopunk. The tone, like steampunk and dieselpunk and cyberpunk, is very much a little on the weird side. This is not a bad thing. This is, after all, two hundred years into the future with no fossil fuels and the very worst predictions of climate change realised. Genetic engineering is a necessity but like a lot of global markets have arguably become corrupted by greed.

If it is an action-packed rollercoaster ride you want then you are best off looking elsewhere. This is light on action and you could count the quantity of fast-paced scenes on one hand. However, if you prefer deep and engaging novels that tackle big issues of today through a lense into the future, and you enjoy global political manoeuvring and the complexities of being a human being living in a very different world, then this will certainly be up your street. It is a metaphor, a warning against letting corporations or “job creators” continue to screw up time and time again. Yet despite this apparent anti-corporate philosophy, the enviornmental movement within Thailand are just as power hungry and use brutal henchmen, the “whiteshirts”, to push their own agenda.

There is so much to like about this novel. The characters are not simple hero, villain or anti-hero. The protagonist, Anderson Lake, works for one of the bad guys and is not particularly likeable. Emiko is passive and though probably the only truly good character she is not beyond acts of aggression, even killing people in vengeful rage. All are realistic with flaws and personal qualities that we can admire or resent in equal measure. Very few writers outside of hard literature seem to want to write in this style, fewer still in science fiction. Notable exceptions are Kim Stanley Robinson and Alastair Reynolds. In a lot of cases people are a product of their environments and as such will have different values from what we might expect.

The only thing I did not like about it was that Bacigalupi throws us in at the deep end right from the start. There is no slow build up, a process of easing us into this world and taking careful moments of strategically placed exposition to give us the back story, but a proverbial skydive right into the heart of the busiest market in Bangkok with a compass thrust into your hand with nothing more instructive than “get on with it.” This jars and makes it difficult to absorb yourself into. Even over halfway through with plot plunging onward it is easy to feel remote from the plot.

This is not a particularly enjoyable book but it is a parable for the modern age, rather like so many dystopia novels it is a work to appreciate rather than one to love.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

  1. Redhead

    i tried reading this when it first came out, and I just couldn’t get into it. I should give it another try, as I’ve enjoyed some of Bacigalupi’s short stories. But I’m concerned, as you describe it as “not a particularly enjoyable book” ??

    1. mgm75

      No, it isn’t particularly enjoyable; mostly for the reasons that tmso states here. Most of the characters are pretty unlikeable with no true hero to cheer for.

      I struggled to get into because you are not permitted time enough to acclimatise to the style of writing or the plot.

  2. Isaac

    I’ve heard some interesting but mixed things about this. I’m always up for dystopic novels that serve as metaphors for our times, but a lot of them are quite heavy-handed.

    1. mgm75

      This one certainly is. Patience is required but it is a very good book. A shame it is just so difficult to get absorbed into.

  3. tmso

    I didn’t find it enjoyable either. Yes, I am glad I read it and I can definitely appreciate the craft of what he set out to do. It is well done, and as you said, the characters are well-rounded. The thing is, for a piece of entertaining fiction, I couldn’t relate to it because the only character I could ever possibly relate to became a ghost – literally. I wanted someone – anyone – to do the right thing. But the circumstances that the author set up made that impossible for anyone to do, which, though realistic, is not reality. Someone, somewhere in Mr. Bacigalupi’s world could have done the right thing, but chose not to. I had high hopes for Mr. Lake’s Chinese assistant (forgotten his name), but his humanity never comes through. I guess that is what I didn’t like about the book. Even the hardest of criminals have some shred of humanity. It might not come out very often, but sometimes they slip. Mr. Bacigalupi never let his character slip into their humanity. And that hurt.

    1. mgm75

      I agree with your complaints. The character you were thinking of is Hock Seng. Clearly he was a crook with his own agenda but I too kept hoping that this would end up having motivation that we could at least sympathise with him for.

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