THE WINDUP GIRL by Paolo Bacigalupi

Book Quote:

“What does the gentleman think I will do with his extra baht?’ she asks. “Buy a pretty piece of jewelry? Take myself to dinner? I am property, yes? I am Raleigh’s.” She tosses the money at his feet. “It makes no difference if I am rich or poor. I am owned.”

Book Review:

Review by Kirstin Merrihew (MAY 14, 2010)

Unlike much of the world, the Thai Kingdom had avoided inundation by the rising oceans. It had avoided pandemic decimation of crops and population. It had kept the global agri-corporations from accessing and either exploiting or destroying its vast and precious seed banks. It had taken drastic, isolationist steps to preserve itself while most of the rest of the world faltered into massive contraction and potential extinction.

The white shirts of the Environment Ministry enforced the official policy of the Child Queen’s regime, burning fields and villages if genetic blight or plague struck, conducting customs inspections of the expensive goods imported on dirigibles and confiscating and destroying even items supposedly protected by large bribes. And, “mulching” any windups they discovered.

Windups — also called New People — were bio-mechanically engineered creatures from Japan that could pass for human beings except that their everyday movements were jerky — reminding natural people of windup toys. Emiko was one of these windups; she had been imported to Bangkok and was, by constitution, submissive: she had been designed to obey, submit, and please. Her current “master” was neither Japanese nor Thai; he was Raleigh, a Westerner whose “club” was bar, opium den, and bordello among other things. Emiko, who in severely underpopulated Japan would have been valued and accepted, was basically a slave and “genetic trash” here.

Emiko caught the eye of Anderson Lake, a representative of AgriGen, a so-called “calorie company,” i.e., one of the multinationals that had a stranglehold on genetically modified grains and other foodstuffs which were being sold at exorbitant prices to other starving nations. He ostensibly ran the SpringLife factory that produced next-generation kink springs which were commonly used to power items that had formerly run on oil. Lake’s factory employed not only Thais and “yellow card” Chinese refugees but also, on the dangerous manufacturing floor, towering elephantine megodonts with four tusks that sometimes rampaged. Lake’s factory was more of a sham than a real enterprise, however. His true preoccupation was trying to ferret out the top secret storage sites of the Thai seed banks and to do whatever he could to shift high officials away from isolationism and toward free trade. Lake hoped Emiko could become a valuable informant, but he also found himself vulnerable to her trademark silky skin and sexual charms, complicating both of their existences.

Meanwhile, Jaidee, the Tiger of the white shirts, a fervent believer in guarding his country’s borders and long-term survival, misjudged the changing political winds in the Kingdom. Accused by his superiors of overstepping his authority, he was made a scapegoat by those aligning for a crucial showdown regarding the country’s future. The immense pressure on the Kingdom to open itself to “free trade” and to “share” its seed bank with the world might crush Jaidee, not to mention Hock Seng, a scheming yellow card Chinese employee of Anderson Lake’s, and…Emiko.

Emiko had heard rumors of a place to the north where other New People had a community of their own, and she wanted to escape Bangkok and find her own kind. But as the city became a powder keg waiting to be lit, she got more, not less, entangled with Lake, Raleigh, a genetic scientist, and other mercenary or exploitative examples of humanity. She also discovered hidden strengths (and aggressions) within herself she’d never guessed at before. Would Emiko affect the entire course of history in the Thai Kingdom? Or would that be left to others, and would she end up as a bystander, a witness to ecological disaster?

The Windup Girl vividly depicts a dystopian future ushered in by radical climate change and the reckless depletion of our natural resources as well as mismanagement and “generipping” of our crops and other food sources. Paolo Bacigalupi invents a scenario that one hopes is not too prescient but which compellingly grabs the reader and doesn’t let go. This, Bacigalupi’s first novel (he had previously written award-winning short stories), creates characters and plot with assurance that builds immediate and continued reader confidence in the integrity of the unfolding story. His characters are blemished, greedy, ambitious, and ruthless. They often act “badly” but as one might expect in their unforgiving environment. The world in which he enfolds them leaks disease and death but continues to display irrepressible human ingenuity. Bacigalupi’s future is one where science’s interference with nature has led Mankind to the brink. Emiko and the other windups represent one tangent of scientific development that might outlive human beings, and although the idea of articifial “life” surviving us isn’t a new idea, Bacigalupi’s version teams with innovative perspectives about her construction and status. Although Emiko is reasonably accused of having no soul. the author convinces the reader that she possesses an inner life and has a survival instinct at least as insistent as that of any natural person.

This novel is a 2010 Hugo Award nominee — along with five others. Looking at the list through my own bias for science fiction that deals with space travel and alien civilizations in other star systems, I noticed a trend this year with a bit of a jaundiced eye: most of the nominees were about a dystopian future/fantasy earth. I’d hoped for more subject matter breadth. But when I read the publisher’s summary of The Windup Girl, it wasn’t to be passed up. Whether it actually wins the Hugo or not, this novel is visionary, gritty, cautionary and highly intelligent. It definitely ranks in the top echelon of science fiction. Bacigalupi is a great and already polished talent, and I expect many more terrific (but maybe not quite so terrifying) tales from him.

Editor’s note:  The Windup Girl has won the Nebula Award and tied for the Hugo Award. It has also been chosen as Time Magazine’s book of the year.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 233 readers
PUBLISHER: Night Shade Books (April 20, 2010)
REVIEWER: Kirstin Merrihew
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Paolo Bacigalupi
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of another 2010 Hugo and Nebula Award Nominee:

The City and the City by China Mieville

And another 2010 Hugo Nominee:

WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer


May 14, 2010 · Judi Clark · 3 Comments
Tags: , , , , , ,  · Posted in: Hugo Award, Nebula Award Winner, Scifi, Speculative (Beyond Reality)

3 Responses

  1. poornima - May 25, 2010

    Sounds like my younger daughter would really love this book. Kirstin, would yu say this would be appropriate for a 13-year-old? Thematically it seems right on for her, just want to make sure…

  2. Kirstin - June 4, 2010

    Poormina, this novel definitely has a lot that would interest young people. However, the sex bits, violence, and a few other things lead me to err on the side of caution and say it isn’t age appropriate for thirteen-year-olds. These judgments are best left to parents though, so perhaps you’ll want to read it yourself first and decide?

  3. Judi Clark - November 27, 2010

    There is one very graphic violent sex scene early on that I found difficult even for me… and Carl couldn’t get past it and quit the book. So I would NOT recommend this to any one in high school. There is a purpose to it… although it is quite awhile before we understand why the author included it.

    I currently list this as one of my favorite books for 2010… but that one scene is the reason it is not higher on my list.

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