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Book Reviews

Book Review: The Windup Girl 164

New submitter Hector's House writes "'Nothing is certain. Nothing is secure,' reflects one of the characters in Paolo Bacigalupi's novel The Windup Girl. In 23rd century Bangkok, life for many hangs by a thread. Oil has run out; rising seas threatens to engulf the city; genetically engineered diseases hover on Thailand's borders; and the threat of violence smolders as government ministries vie for power. Environmental destruction, climate change and novel plagues have wiped out many of the crop species that humanity depends on: the profits to be made from creating — or stealing — new species are potentially enormous. After a century of collapse and contraction, Western business sees hope for a new wave of globalization; Thailand's fiercely guarded seed banks may provide just the springboard needed." Keep reading for the rest of Aidan's review.
The Windup Girl
author Paolo Bacigalupi
pages 376
publisher Night Shade Books
rating 8
reviewer Aidan McKeown
ISBN 978-0356500539
summary Dystopian action thriller set in 23rd century Bangkok
In a street market, Anderson Lake—a prospector for a US agribusiness giant—comes across an entirely new fruit. Drawn by the promise that it might lead him to the Thai kingdom's seed banks, he follows a trail that leads him to the backstreet club run by dissipated expat Raleigh. Here he encounters Emiko, the "windup girl" of the title. In the club's signature live sex show, she is subjected to—quite graphically described—abuse on stage. Genetically engineered in Japan as a "New Person", to be companion, secretary and translator to wealthy patrons, Emiko—a sort of transgenic geisha—has been abandoned in Bangkok by her former patron. Having been trained since infancy to be compliant, and carrying canine DNA that makes life outside of a strict hierarchy unthinkable, Emiko is trapped both by her own nature and by her characteristic tick-tock stuttery movements, hardcoded into her to make her manufactured origins immediately apparent. Genetically "unclean", Emiko daily faces the threat of extermination by the environment police: she takes to the streets only at night, when she can more easily "pass". Lake is fascinated by the exotic Emiko; she in turn is drawn to him, not least as an escape from slavery—even possibly to the fabled north, where New People reputedly live in freedom. Their relationship is an ambiguous one. Lake is not inherently a tender character (he considers the murder of business associates who threaten his plans). Moreover, his status as an unwelcome corporate outsider already puts him at risk; a transgressive liaison with a "windup" endangers him further. Emiko herself (like the Thai authorities) doesn't feel that she is genuinely human. However, she is fully capable of experiencing pain and loss and—with devastating results—rage.

Bacigalupi's novel is not new, nor is it obscure: published in 2009, it went on to win the highly esteemed Nebula and Hugo awards for science-fiction writing in 2009 and 2010. However, it deserves a place on the pages of slashdot, both for its vision of the future, and how naturally that is embedded in a well-crafted, intelligent action thriller. The book takes a qualified view of our future technological development. Fossil fuel depletion has resulted in a retraction of progress. Now, human and animal labour wind massive crank shafts—a dramatic ramping up of the technology used in hand-cranked radios and windup lanterns. Everything is recycled: even sewage produces methane to light the city's gas lamps. Where technology has leaped forward is in genetic engineering. This has yielded startling benefits: megodonts, hybrid beasts of burden, the result of the splicing of the DNA of elephants with that their massive prehistoric ancestors. It has also imposed dire costs: laboratory-manufactured plagues have swept the planet, Thailand surviving only because of the extreme zealousness of its environmental police.

The setting of an Asian culture, the dystopian image of people crammed into a crumbling city, and the relationship between a cynical, jaded man and vulnerable, artificial woman inevitably recall Bladerunner; however, even if that story provided some inspiration, The Windup Girl doesn't feel derivative: Emiko is the leading protagonist, not a supporting character. And the book takes off from that point of comparison: it's not stuck there. Weaving in with the main plot are a number of sub narratives, the book drawing much of its momentum from this crisscrossing. Hock Seng, Lake's elderly Malaysian Chinese assistant, a refugee from bloody ethnic cleansing, plots his escape from the chaos he feels must ultimately engulf Bangkok. Fiery, ebullient environment police captain Jaidee Rojjanasukchai and his austere female lieutenant Kanya Chirathivat pursue genetic transgressions in an attempt to preserve what is left of Thailand's ravaged ecosystem. Meanwhile their Environment Ministry vies with the Ministry of Trade, which seeks to open up Thailand to resurgent Western business. Plot and counter plot wind the characters together into a climactic conflict sensed only dimly at the start of the book.

It is perhaps here where the book, not falls down, but stumbles. The complexity of the plot towards the end of the book becomes dense and – for me, on first reading – slowed the book's momentum. This complexity might, however, also be a strength. For the purposes of the review I came back to the book, which I had read some eight or nine months previously; it bears rereading, and the largely tight structure is rewarding, as is the plot development. The sense of place is very strong—the press of street markets, the stench and press of humanity in the crumbling high-rise apartment buildings, the tropical setting ("[the] night was black and sticky, a jungle filled with the squawks of night birds and the pulse and whir of insect life"), as is the sense of—literally—the daily grind, as men and animals wind the cranks that keep the city powered. And many of the ideas have the power to jolt: the "cheshires", cats with chameleon DNA that recall Lewis Carroll's fictional creation by changing color to melt into their surroundings, the better to exterminate already-threatened bird populations; the Dung Lord, a mafia don who controls the trade in human waste, a vital part of the city's economy. While not all the characters remain with you afterwards, fittingly, Emiko, the lonely and conflicted protagonist does. Interestingly, hers is also the character for whom the greatest leap of imagination is required—the genetically altered outsider, who makes a journey from abject slavery to a realization of her potential.

Science fiction often suffers because while much attention may have been paid to the technological aspects, the author fails to capture the complexities of the new society or convincingly grasp the characters. Bacigalupi – largely – succeeds because he recognizes that human nature doesn't change over time: elites are only too willing to exercise control with force; the outsiders and those are who different are always vulnerable; human culture, in all its strangeness and mundanity, continues. A key strength of the book is that the subjective portrayal of the characters' inner lives and thoughts means that we feel them to be inhabiting their own present, exactly as we are. They look back of course, as do we. In their case, wonderingly to a time known as "The Expansion", when Thailand was allegedly the "Land of smiles", quite unlike the misery that has become the lot of its average citizen.

If you'd like to sample Bacigalupi's writing, some of his short stories are available on his Pump Six website.

Aidan McKeown is an editor and writer living in the Netherlands. He can be contacted at

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Book Review: The Windup Girl

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  • by Monty845 ( 739787 ) on Monday February 06, 2012 @04:51PM (#38946145)
    There were a lot of interesting ideas discussed in the book, but it fails to really explain why things like solar power were not used... at all... not to mention any other form of green energy that is available even today. It seemed a pretty big hole to me.
  • by heptapod ( 243146 ) <> on Monday February 06, 2012 @04:53PM (#38946171) Journal

    The Windup Girl came out in September 2009 and now you're getting around to reviewing it?

    Let me tell ya, there's an awesome book by this guy named Bob Heinlein. He named it "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" and I heard it's pretty good. I'd better get cracking on that review before it's too late!

  • by Man On Pink Corner ( 1089867 ) on Monday February 06, 2012 @05:25PM (#38946475)

    Every generation of scholars from the ancient Greeks to the present day has complained about people like you: children of privilege and promise whose intellectual laziness signals their parents' failure and their culture's fall. Happily, those old geezers have all been full of shit... at least up until the last 10-15 years or so. Now, their lamentations ring loudly in our ears. They sound less like the grousing of irrelevant reactionaries, and more like warnings of an undeniable and very inconvenient truth.

    So have another Adderall and hit the showers; your work here is done.

  • by Daetrin ( 576516 ) on Monday February 06, 2012 @05:35PM (#38946563)
    First, in response to your post, they're really not at all similar. Oryx and Crake is a _real_ apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic novel. At the end almost everyone is dead and there's not much hope for the survivors. (The second part of that could certainly be debated, but doing so would definitely involve somewhat spoilery stuff.)

    In Windup Girl the world has gone through a cataclysm, and you could call the "present" world a post-apocalyptic one if you really wanted, but it's not a nearly dead world. At the point we join the story there are a number of civilizations in the world. They're all worried about further calamities, but most of them are doing pretty well. They're growing and expanding, world trade is starting to come back (despite somewhat justified opposition) a lot of progress is being made in genetics and the harvesting of kinetic energy, and they're able to produce high tech items like computers in at least limited quantities.

    Which is why the grand-parent comment is so telling. They can make computers, so why can't they make solar panels? And why is there no nuclear power? And dear gods why no hydro power? They've definitely got the tech to build turbines and water wheels are about the oldest tech out there, and windmills ought to be just about as easy to build.
  • by Nidi62 ( 1525137 ) on Monday February 06, 2012 @05:37PM (#38946581)

    2) famine was the new normal, actually eating was a challenge.

    If there was mass famine, wouldn't human and animal labor be the last source of energy you would want to use? That would just create an even greater need for food.

  • by ralphdaugherty ( 225648 ) <> on Monday February 06, 2012 @05:39PM (#38946599) Homepage

    Thanks for the review. I like this Bladerunner kind of stuff. I'll be ordering it, and also checking out other similar books mentioned here.

    IMO the no solar energy and reliance on animal powered cranks (and especially in a dense urban environment) is totally unrealistic but dramatic license.

    The 23rd century is way too optimistic. The ocean will have flooded Thailand well before that and there will be massive death from starvation and a runaway bioengineered disaster even before that. Human nature being what it is, it's guaranteed we will do nothing to prevent it.

  • by Jah-Wren Ryel ( 80510 ) on Monday February 06, 2012 @06:04PM (#38946869)

    The only kind of person who would think that review was anything even approaching a cliff's notes version of the book are people who haven't read the book. For example saying that Hock Seng is Anderson Lake's "assistant" glosses over at least a quarter of the narrative.

  • by HeckRuler ( 1369601 ) on Monday February 06, 2012 @06:28PM (#38947095)
    Well a big plot element is that the powers that be, the calorie-men, have an established business, and they hold the world by the throat. Imagine if you will that the oil tycoons were in charge of not only transportation, but food. In a time of famine. It's also a time of plagues, which they also have a hand in.
    I'm not sure if it's specifically spelled out, but it's implied that the calorie-men were responsible for releasing plagues that decimated crops of competitors.

    But anyway, if you have an immensely powerful establishment, and you try to introduce alternatives, it turns out that they don't look kindly on that sort of thing.

    The complete lack of hydro-power is kinda damning though. Solar and wind too, but they lack the pun.

Loose bits sink chips.