Paolo Bacigalupi’s first published novel, The Windup Girl, has made quite an impact on the reading world. I honestly enjoy science-fiction, even if I don’t read too many books in the genre. I’d heard a lot of good things about this book and so thought myself lucky to find a used copy. And I’m so glad I read it, because it is amazing in many ways, even though it is problematic in others.
The novel is set in a near future, probably a century after ours if I had to guess, in the kingdom of Thailand. In this dystopian vision, global warming has led to rising sea levels and wiped whole nations from the face of the earth. We learn that Thailand has survived through strict policing of calories and their own seedbank. With its concerns of energy management, The Windup Girl taps into current concerns over renewal forms of energy and global warming. Bacigalupi conjures up a world in which generippers and caloriemen are in control. Calories are currency and seedbanks the most important resource that can decide over survival or downfall.
It is a world that divides its timeline into contraction and expansion. Colonialism and independence are crucial to the story. I was intrigued by the fact that the story is set in Asia, that the author thus moves away from the Western world and furthermore examines the power dynamics between East and West and a renewed colonialism against which Thailand has thus far been able to hold out thanks to its own seedbank. Political intrigue is abundant in Krung Thep. Trade and the Environment Ministry (the white shirts) fight for power, while the two heads of organizations are about to break their tentative peace. Thailand is a kingdom ruled by a child Queen but her protector appears to be pulling a lot of the strings. Additionally, it is a nation that relies on religion, where the characters each pray to their own gods and hope that kamma will allow for a good rebirth.
The titular character, the windup girl, is Emiko. She is another one in the long line of imagined human-shaped beings, with a tell-tale stutter motion, smooth skin and a tendency to overheat. Imagined and constructed in Japan, Emiko has been left behind by her owner and is regarded as unworthy of life, unnatural, a heechy-keechy, always in danger of being shredded.
What humans come up with when they imagine human-like beings is something that interests me most in science fiction. It reveals so much about what people think central to humanity, what are our best features, our worst, and what is that elusive quality that makes us so different from other life-forms? In literature, these imagined beings often have the capability to become something better than human, something more. This ability is what makes them both more than and less than human. They often have the capability to replace humans as the dominant species and the traits which make this possible, lead to them being considered less than human by humans. The humans in Bacigalupi’s world do not consider the windups capable of emotions and their ignorance has them treat the windups with revulsion and fear as they do not think they have souls. To ensure that these windups do not supersede humans, the windups in Bacigalupi’s novel are created without the capability to reproduce. And as a further means of control over the windups, they were engineered as slaves, with the intrinsic wish to please and serve. We learn that they were created with a cheap workforce in mind.
So when it comes to imagining a world post global warming and without oil, Bacigalupi does a great job. I believed in his dystopian vision and the decisions and actions of its people. But that brings me to the problems I had with the book: the characters. Their intrigues, colonialism and such rang absolutely true, but they are more or less all clichés. And the female characters were worse. Emiko is basically of the likeable whore trope, having been engineered as a slave with the all-dominating wish to serve, she now earns her living by getting raped every evening. So the sex in this novel is not the good kind of sordid but non-consensual and I really hope the very detailed descriptions of how Emiko cannot help but respond because she was engineered to please are not supposed to be a turn-on! Her struggle against this servant-“gene” made me hope but I was somewhat crushed by the ending. Maybe I’m too pessimistic, so let me know how you read the last chapter.
Then, as this is a novel about genetic engineering, there is of course the figure of the mad scientist. Bacigalupi does not do anything too radical gender-wise here, the mad scientist is naturally male. The other characters are mostly along the same lines. But I’d still recommend this book and I really hope that his next works will show progress in that regard as the rest is pretty fantastic.
Has anyone read Bacigalupi’s short-stories? I hear a lot of them already sketch out the characters of this novel.
Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!