The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

A review of the literary science fiction novel The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Thailand is a home away from home away from home for me. As a Sino-British woman, I grew up in a world where languages were often combined, so it is little wonder that I am drawn to books that do this very thing.

Nowadays science fiction authors seem to delight in making up new words and leave the readers to figure out their meaning through context. Depending on the skill of the author this can be an exercise in frustration or a lot of fun for the readers who like a bit of challenge. I am the latter, but luckily I also had some conversational skill in Thai (emphasis on ‘some’).

There are plenty of newly minted words in The Windup Girl, plus lots of Thai words which are equally unexplained except via context. This then is not an easy read but for the patient readers who persevere it is very rewarding. Besides, it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for 2010, so you may want to take that into consideration. I at least have an advantage in comprehending the Thai words and cultural references. I have nothing but admiration for non-Thai readers who can figure everything out without any help from Google.

In Paolo Bacigalupi’s imagined future, Bangkok has become a simmering stew pot of paranoia, brutality, despair, and betrayal. Genetic manipulation has brought the world to the brink of extinction. With great advancements also came tragic mistakes. Blister rust, Cibiscosis, the Genehack weevil brought death and famine. The very companies that created these problems are now the companies that the world has to rely on to stay one step ahead of the mutations of their mistakes. Battling for calories is now an all-consuming endeavour for a population that has rarely had a full belly. An innocuous cough can start a stampede of fleeing people. Fear is the natural state of mind.

Thailand has become a significant player on the world stage because their leaders had been forward thinking enough to secure a seed bank. This provides the building blocks of future plant stock that can be manipulated to survive the onslaught of mega-diseases. They also secured their own genius generipper who has continued to find ways to grow eatable, disease resistant food.

Algae is also a main source of energy for the factory and also dangerous to the workers. A simple change in chemistry can turn algae from a friendly product into a human killer. Since the publication of this book, scientists have started discussing the power of algae in the future. Could this be another one of those science fiction books that predicts the future?

Energy is generated by Megodonts, genetical modified elephants whose brute strength creates joules that keep the factory wheels turning. Thailand is very well known for its use of elephants in the past, so this was a nice nod at the country’s cultural history. Given that elephants are slowly gaining more rights instead of slave labour, it did sadden me to read a future where it was all taken away again.

Anderson is a character that could have stepped out of a Graham Greene novel. He works for AgriGen, a major player in the gene manipulation market out of Des Moines. He is in Thailand under the cover of running a factory. Anderson combs Bangkok’s street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history’s lost calories. That is until he meets the ‘Windup Girl.’

The titular Windup Girl is Emiko, an illegal commodity in Thailand, designed by the Japanese as a pleasure, serving model. She is a hybrid of genetic manipulations that has given her beauty, super human speed and strength, and a subservient matrix that allows her owner to have complete control over her actions. Emiko has also been designed to respond to sexual advances making even the most inept lovers feel like they are providing her with sexual pleasure. And yet if one is careful to make no demands, to leave the air between them open, another version of her emerges, as precious and rare as a living bo tree; her soul, emerging from within the strangling strands of her engineered DNA.

Bacigalupi does a wonderful job of world building. I fell into this brutal world (there are a couple of surprisingly graphic sex scenes), totally swept away by the tide of the plot. The characters are well drawn. They are motivated by the same desire to survive, but their plans for survival are uniquely their own.

So, if you’re looking for a dystopian science fiction book to read? This one.

If you’re looking for an award-winning book to read? This one.

If you’re looking for a book that isn’t westernised or filled to the brim with white models? This one.

If you’re learning Thai and want to test yourself, or interested in Thai culture, or anything like that? This one.

If you’re looking for a book packed with world building and diverse characters in an unusual setting? This one.

That’s it.

That’s all I can say about this book.

Trish has always enjoyed escaping reality, now she invites you to join her.

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1 Comment

  • 1

    An excellent review because it gave me a good insight into what is obviously a very complex novel. I started off thinking I would never be able to read it and perhaps I never will, but why shouldn’t readers with a scientific background, fervent imaginations or concerns about Planet Earth stretch their minds with a challenge.All the plot lines sound totally credible, even the super elephants!

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