Friday, 14 June 2013

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen's calorie representative in Thailand. Under cover as a factory manager, he combs Bangkok's street markets in search of foodstuffs long thought to be extinct. There he meets the windup girl - the beautiful and enigmatic Emiko - now abandoned to the slums. She is one of the New People, bred to suit the whims of the rich. Engineered as slaves, soldiers and toys, they are the new underclass in a chilling near future where oil has run out, calorie companies dominate nations and bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.

And as Lake becomes increasingly obsessed with Emiko, conspiracies breed in the heat and political tensions threaten to spiral out of control. Businessmen and ministry officials, wealthy foreigners and landless refugees all have their own agendas. But no one anticipates the devastating influence of the Windup Girl.

It's not a nice future Bacigalupi's biopunk story takes place in and it's not an easy book to read.

Let me explain the second point first.

The Windup Girl is told from the viewpoints of four to five main characters, all deeply scarred from things in their pasts. Most of these characters aren't really likable and have their own selfish agendas, often contrary to those of the other characters. Somehow you still cheer for most of them.

Having so many viewpoints to introduce and develop makes this a very slow story to start. It practically needs the whole book to gain momentum. So if you are looking for a lot of physical action and usually enjoy fast paced books, you won't last long with this one. In addition to that the book is written in present tense, which has the tendency to throw me off from time to time.

What keeps you in is the extremely well built and detailed world Bacigalupi has created. It's a dystopian future where nearly everything we should be concerned about right now went wrong.

The climate changed and the sea level rose high enough to drown most coastal cities. Bangkok, the setting of this book, is protected by huge dams and a pump system from the ever threatening ocean. There are next to no fossil fuels left and humanity has reverted to other, quite ineffective forms of energy. Spring-power (like in windup toys) for storing energy, treadles for computers, genetically modified elephant like creatures called Megadonts for powering factories, and so on. If there was an explanation why they didn't use solar power or wind energy (besides using clippers), I missed it.

Huge agri-corporations, in everything but the name like Monsanto, have meddled a bit too much with nature, more or less accidentally releasing new plants, animals and plagues which completely messed up the food chains and the ecosystem of the whole planet. Only a fracture of normal plants and animals are left and humanity has to be really inventive to feed itself. Those agri-corporations control the whole food market, keeping everybody dependent on their food and making calories the only currency that counts. Wars are waged for precious seeds and Thailand, which managed to stay independent because of a policy of isolation and their seed bank, one of the only ones left in the world, are targeted by everybody.

The Windup Girl is full of political maneuvering and intrigue, where violence and sex are two popular ways to gain or exercise power. Both the violence and the sex, which is mostly violent and abusive too, are vivid and sometimes a bit more detailed than I would have liked. Especially Emiko, the Windup Girl the book is named after, has to endure a lot in a city that sees her as an abomination and not a human being. Cast aside like a toy and with a modified extra-smooth skin that is incompatible with the tropic heat of Thailand she has to sell her body and her dignity. 

Especially this aspect of the story reads like an homage to Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book which became the movie Blade Runner.

In Bacigalupi's novel you are wondering all the time how it will end. All characters are on opposing sides, with goals so different to each other that you don't even know how you want this book to end. I'll promise that the twist is so surprising that you won't manage to foresee it. The Windup Girl is a complex book, which it needs to be to tell its story adequately. It is a book worth your time – while trying to convince you otherwise along the way. 

About the Reviewer: When Christian Abresch was fifteen, he stayed home to write a fantasy book instead of going with his parents and brother on vacation. More fantasy novels, poems and short stories followed in the years to come and since each was less crappy than the one before he hopes to get published someday. To keep his fingers on the pulse of fantasy, he loves browsing Fantasy-Faction with its articles, reviews and forums even though it caused an unnatural growing of his TBR, which worries him. Christian lives with his girlfriend and an imaginary cat in Berlin. Follow him on twitter: @xiaiswriting


Lisa Taylor said...

Interesting. I've nominated this one for book club at least once. Sounds like it would likely be a divisive read at best for the discussions.

Doug Smith said...

I know! After reading Xi's review, I'm seriously intrigued. Sounds like it could be a really thought-provoking read, too.

Anonymous said...

As am I. Really intrigued. Plus, giant elephants always makes a good story.

Blase Ciabaton said...

This was highly recommended by a fellow author & dear friend, so I purchased it and have it sitting on the shelf. Excellent review-thanks! The different p.o.v.s sounds very interesting, and the future world amazing-a little concerned about the pace though.

Hannah @ Once Upon A Time said...

Have this from the library to read for my steampunk feature but now I'm not sure it's even steampunk? Internet labels are unhelpful most of the time!

Anonymous said...

"The Windup Girl" is a fantastic read. I enjoyed the world-building of the author. It is such dynamic, desperate and vivid description of a collapsing world with a worsening environmental situation.

I really want to read a well made sequel to this because when I finished the book I wanted to keep reading. I was hooked.

Check out my blog at:

what a good book.