The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen’s Calorie Man in Thailand. Undercover as a factory manager, Anderson combs Bangkok’s street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history’s lost calories. There, he encounters Emiko...

Emiko is the Windup Girl, a strange and beautiful creature. One of the New People, Emiko is not human; she is an engineered being, crèche-grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich in a chilling near future in which calorie companies rule the world, the oil age has passed, and the side effects of bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.

What happens when calories become currency? What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits, when said bio-terrorism’s genetic drift forces mankind to the cusp of post-human evolution? Award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi delivers one of the most highly acclaimed science fiction novels of the twenty-first century.

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I like a good science fiction cautionary tale, and in an era where there are so many things that we still do not understand, there is plenty of material out there for sci-fi writers to create something chilling that plays on our biggest fears. Global warming, genetic engineering, western consumerism - all of our greatest fears associated with these issues are drawn out and explored by Paolo Bacigalupi in his Hugo, Nebula and Locus winning novel The Windup Girl.

Bacigalupi paints a bleak picture of the future, a world overrun by bio-terrorism as calorie companies engineer crippling viruses that destroy crops and force nations to buy their own virus resistant crops. Global warming due to carbon emissions has seen the development of kink spring technology, devices that store energy (calories) by being wound up. Animals and now humans are being genetically engineered, questioning spiritual beliefs about the soul and how it reincarnates. Thailand has shut itself from the world almost completely, burning anything and everything that the foreign menace try to sneak past the border. It is a world that has been crafted so well that it feels like it might be a very plausible future. This world building is where The Windup Girl really shines, creating a cautionary tale that really engages with the reader in the hope that it may inspire action to stop this future from becoming a reality.

Bacigalupi explores this world through the eyes of five main protagonists, each with their own separate stories that slowly but surely interweave with each other as the book accelerates towards a "big bang" ending. These stories are cleverly constructed, they do a lot to make this book into a coherent novel whilst further fleshing out the cautionary tale, and they work hard at making the reader think. But there is a big problem here, the stories are just so depressing. For example - Emiko the windup girl is contraband, surviving as a taboo prostitute with her earnings used to fund the bribes that make the authorities look the other way. Things don't ever get better for her throughout the story, as she suffers more and more degrading abuse in the hope of one day being free. The other stories are similarly depressing with Bacigalupi not afraid to hold back, putting the characters in desperate situations with brutal consequences. It was really hard for me to maintain my motivation to read this novel - there was rarely any joy, rarely any fun to be had, and to be honest I just don't like to read depressing books.

The characters themselves, I really liked. In a world that is so hard on all of them, they show amazing resilience to keep on fighting in the hope that everything will turn out ok. They are all clearly motivated by their own reasons, they all display varying levels of intelligence, but what really separates them is their morality and the way in which each of them reacts when presented with similar scenarios. While one character will do whatever they can to save a village from an outbreak, another will have no qualms at all about setting fire to the village "for the greater good" - it creates a great contrast between seemingly similar characters.  The resilience is by no means overdone, and as Bacigalupi presses them hard and harder, one by one their resilience gives out and they break. I like seeing characters being put through the meat grinder and coming out the other side having been fundamentally scarred by the experience, but I think Bacigalupi presses to hard here on too many characters, and in the end the broken characters are left with so little of their former selves that the little victories a few of the characters have towards the end don't really feel like victories at all. Again, just too depressing for my tastes.

Technically, The Windup Girl is written very well. The narration style is more third person omniscience which was weird for me at first having read so much third person limited and first person narration, but I got used to it quick enough and I think it really suits the mood of the story. The pacing is a bit slow, but that may be coloured by my lack of motivation to keep reading the story. One thing that I really liked was Bacigalupi's use of native languages. While the narration was done primarily in English, there was no attempt made to translate some of the more emotive dialogue and for me that was a good thing because the infrequent use of native languages really worked to punctuate some of the big issues and themes that Bacigalupi wanted to highlight.

This book is not for me. It was far too depressing, it was hard work, and I don't think I will be revisiting it again. I really appreciate what Bacigalupi has done with this story, and there  are so many things he does right with each and every element of the book, but in the end I like to read as a form of entertainment and escapism, and I was not able to get that with this book. That said it might just be me feels this way, so for a book that does so many things right there is a good chance that you will love this book.

8/10 I like a good science fiction cautionary tale.

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2 positive reader review(s) for The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl reader reviews

from France

Extraodinary and so, so vivid. A very clever and deep book, which deserves its awards. As effective a thriller than a Sci-fi cautionary tale, exotic in many ways, political and moving... Great novel.
9/10 ()

from United States

I loved this book. It was thought provoking and you just hoped all along. It was political without being overwhelmingly so. I am really lusting after anything this author might write in the future
10/10 ()

8.8/10 from 3 reviews

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