I typically have one rule when it comes to abandoning a book. If I am not invested in some manner by the time I finish 50 pages, then I say off with its head. Well rules are meant to be broken, and that is exactly the case that occurred while reading The Windup Girl. The debut novel from Paolo Bacigalupi was met with critical acclaim, winning both the Nebula Award in 2010 as well as the Hugo Award (tied with China Miéville’s The City & the City). The Windup Girl made it to the top of several lists upon its release. With so many positive reviews, why was this book such a struggle for me? What kept me motivated enough to finish it? I have some thoughts regarding this, but I will say that I breezed through the second half of the book which completely changed my thoughts about it as a whole. So much for my rule.
The Windup Girl takes place in 23rd Century Thailand. Economic collapse has occurred following an event known as “the Contraction” where all fuel and electricity have been depleted. Machines now run on manually wound springs and calories have become the new currency. Biotech companies based in the West are now in control of food production and distribution. These corrupt organizations profit through threat and forms of bio-terrorism. Countries such as Thailand are free from corporate control since they have their own private seed banks and markets. The novel begins with the introduction of Anderson Lake, a representative for one of these calorie companies. Posing as a factory manager working to develop a new device able to store greater amounts of power, Lake’s real objective is to discover the location of Thailand’s hidden seed bank which has kept the country from falling victim to the corruption of the calorie companies.
Rather than comprising of one central character, the novel frequently shifts through several viewpoints. Lake’s employee Hock Seng is a Chinese refugee who lost his family during the Malaysian purge of the ethnic Chinese population. Seng has motives of his own as he is attempting to steal the blueprints to the device Lake is developing so he can sell it and return to his former life of power. Jaidee Rojjanasukchai is a captain of what is known as the White Shirts, the enforcers of the Environmental Ministry whose mission is to prevent illegal imports and the spread of bio-engineered viruses from crossing Thai borders. Kanya is Jaidee’s right-hand woman in the White Shirts. She is someone with secrets of her own. Finally, there is Emiko, an illegal Japanese “windup” genetically modified to satisfy the desires of her human masters. Anderson discovers Emiko working as a sex worker in the slums and develops an unhealthy infatuation with her. Slowly over the course of this novel, the individual threads of these characters merge together.
“Politics is ugly. Never doubt what small men will do for great power.”
Environmental destruction and political backstabbings are central to this novel. Essentially there are two main factions at war here, the Trade Ministry and the Environment Ministry. Bangkok’s ruler is known as the child queen, but essentially she is just a figurehead for the real powers behind the throne. True to the world we currently inhabit, there are several characters who are double agents working both sides. I have to applaud Bacigalupi for bringing relevant issues into a science fiction novel. This frightening world could easily be ours, such as the environmental issues that are explored here. Global warming has raised the world’s oceans, natural resources are extinct, and engineered diseases run rampant. Instead of a highly technological future, Bacigalupi paints a picture of a diminished and desperate world. This is dark and gritty science fiction.
As you can probably already guess, this novel is not your casual read. Bacigalupi has built an incredibly realistic world and plunges you headfirst into this dystopia. One element I particularly loved was the use of genetically modified elephants whose labor is needed to run the larger machines. I have always had a distaste for science fiction that contains too much exposition. This novel is virtually free of any information dumping. As a result, you as the reader are expected to navigate your way around this world and figure out exactly what is happening. It does require perseverance on the part of the reader. Trust me, it gets easier. I compare it to running up a really tall hill. Once you manage to get halfway through it, the book starts moving faster. However, it takes a lot of work to get there. Like I said, this book was nearly abandoned. However, I am pleased with myself because it definitely got me thinking about important issues that affect our planet daily.
Bacigalupi uses a lot of strategies to make the reader feel completely displaced in this novel. Several Thai words are thrown in throughout the book which you have to decipher the meaning for yourself. There is no glossary for all of the invented terms used by the author. If you want to avoid feeling lost, there are plenty of guides online. My suggestion is to challenge yourself and just dive into the story.
“She is an animal. Servile as a dog. And yet if he is careful to make no demands, to leave the air between them open, another version of the windup girl emerges. As precious and rare as a living bo tree. Her soul, emerging from within the strangling strands of her engineered DNA.”
A major struggle I had with The Windup Girl was that I could not connect with any of the characters. The problem is that none of them were exactly likable. When reading a dystopian novel, you want to have characters with redeeming qualities that make you want to root for them. Normally, major events occur that lead to protagonists making positive changes in their lives. I saw none of that here. Take Anderson Lake for example. He honestly did not change from the first page to the final one. This is my problem with nearly all of the characters. The closest emotional response I felt towards someone in this book was the character of Emiko. Referred to as one of the “New People” she was created for the sole purpose to serve others. The amount of violence and degradation inflicted on her (there are a couple of brutal rape scenes) left me feeling physically ill. As she struggled against her programming to obey, I felt her anger.
In addition to understanding the environmental and political themes of this novel, The Windup Girl also serves as a great study as a postcolonial text. Postcolonial theory is concerned with exploring the human exploitation and control of a people. I think this novel would make a great study with its exploration of the windups as being less than human and without souls. It is also worth exploring characters such as Hock Seng. The Chinese people are referred to in the book as “yellow cards” following the Malaysian purge. As he was stripped of everything that ever made him feel like a human being, I can sympathize to some extent with Hock Seng’s actions.
Despite an extremely slow start, I was able to appreciate The Windup Girl as a whole. I have a lot of respect for the work that Bacigalupi put into crafting familiar issues into a totally alien world. Much of the enjoyment of this novel will come from engaging with the real world problems of environmental degradation and political corruption. There just needed to be more sympathetic characters like Emiko. Expect an extremely dense but rewarding read. If you are looking for an intelligently designed science fiction novel, then The Windup Girl is worth a try.
“We are nature. Our every tinkering is nature, our every biological striving. We are what we are, and the world is ours. We are its gods. Your only difficulty is your unwillingness to unleash your potential fully upon it.”
This book counts towards one of my challenges for the year. You can track my progress by clicking here.
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Sound off with a comment down below.