The Windup Girl
by Paolo Bacigalupi
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 5, 2010
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As noted in the Overview column to the right, The Windup Girl is a multi-award winner, one of the most honored novels in recent memory. It is hard to say how I would have reacted if I had read it on first release, before it received all the accolades. It does have many strong points, don't get me wrong, but I was disappointed that I was not more impressed with it considering how many other people were singing its praises.
What Bacigalupi does well is character development, lyrical descriptions of the action and settings, as well as an overall consistent tone in presenting his future narrative. I do have a problem with his projected future though, as I do with anything set just a couple of hundred years hence but which presents a scenario that is hard for me to envision. While we all know that we should be working towards reliance on alternate energy sources, I have not read anything that would lead me to believe we will run out of fossil fuels in the foreseeable future. Even if we do, there should be solar, wind and water sources for our needs, and though it is not an ideal objective, even nuclear power could be made much safer than it is today. But the author wants us to believe that by the end of the 22nd Century man will not be relying on any of those sources, but rather will be using "kink springs" to power almost everything from factories, vehicles and even firearms. Not only that, the springs themselves rely on either human or animal muscle in order to be wound to activate their energy potential. I've done some searches but have found no information on this type of spring, so I assume it is an invention of the author, but it is possible what he is describing is similar to old fashioned watch springs. Wound periodically, they produce an energy source as they unwind.
In this future world, large agricultural businesses are as powerful as any country's government or military. It seems that several of these conglomerates conspired to introduce biological plagues around the world which devastated food crops (and thus population due to famine), then these companies stepped into the chaos and offered the world their foodstuffs genetically designed to resist the most common of the plagues. Of the ones frequently mentioned, cibiscosis, the genehack weevil and blister rust, the latter is the only one I found to be an occurrence in real life (but just to pine trees it seems). This is a believable scenario, knowing how manipulative and self-serving most corporations are today. But Bacigalupi falls into the trap of reiterating these points time and time again. These blights are referred to scores of times throughout the novel, possibly a hundred or more times combining all the terms, and the same goes for his multiple mentions of spring-driven power. It is just too repetitive. Even the most unique and original ideas can begin to seem trite if you won't let the reader forget about them and concentrate on the characters.
That aside, let's get to the good stuff. The story is set in future Thailand, which has remained relatively independent for hundreds of years while most of its neighbors have fallen prey to colonization, exploitation, revolution and economic collapse. The country is ruled by royalty but technically under the jurisdiction of the Somdet Chaopraya, the Queen Protector, since she is underage. The two major wings of the government are the Trade and Environment ministries. Trade naturally endorses as much industry as possible, both domestic and foreign financed, while Environment's duty is to maintain the safety of the nation's foodstuffs and other natural resources. Both ministries seem to have other factions of the government and military as allies, and there is a heated rivalry between them for funds and endorsement of their activities.
AgriGen, one of the largest of the multinational corporations, has sent Anderson Lake into the country under the guise of management of Spring Life, a manufacturer of a new generation of kink springs. His actual assignment is to research some foodstuffs being presented at market that were once thought to be extinct. The multinationals have trademarked their own products and are resentful of anyone encroaching on their monopoly as the world's calorie supply. Spring Life employs many farang (foreigners), mostly displaced Chinese, but there are also union positions which are manned exclusively by Thai natives. The largest contingent is the Megadont Union. Megadonts are genetically enhanced animals, derived from elephants, which are used in the factories to wind the biggest of the kink springs. Why not just use elephants? Perhaps they are extinct in this future time, but it wasn't made clear. There are other enhanced creatures mentioned in the book, including the title character, but they are mostly in the background, being utilized by a Japanese corporation which maintains facilities on an island off the coast, and which is exempt from many of the laws that prohibit or strictly regulate the use of such creatures on Thai soil.
While Bacigalupi is good at describing his characters, I did have a problem identifying or sympathizing with any of them. Who are we supposed to relate to? Is it Emiko, the windup girl herself? Is it Anderson Lake (after all he is one of the few Americans in the story), or how about Hock Seng, his "yellow card" Chinese emigrant office manager? Is it Jaidee, one of the Environment Ministry's main enforcers, or his assistant Kanya? Surely not Akkarat, head of the Trade Ministry. He's a back-stabber, turncoat and master manipulator. I struggled with that question throughout my reading, and I'm still not sure of the answer. All of them are operating under their own agenda, and while they all view themselves as loyal to their own faction, they don't seem too concerned about how their actions effect their country, their ministry or their company, respectively. Up until her final action, I was leaning towards Kanya as the most sympathetic. She infiltrated the Environment Ministry with a specific purpose in mind, and yet her loyalty to Jaidee made it difficult to carry out her objective, and when it was all said and done she became part of the problem she had intended to eliminate.
Emiko is really more of a background player than the main character throughout most of the book. She was brought to the country as a secretary to a Japanese official, but when he was reassigned back home he left her there to fend for herself. The Thai government has forbidden New People to live within its borders, the only exception being the ones they allow the Japanese to employ in their offshore facility. Other countries in the region use variations of New People in both industry and military positions, but the only enhanced creatures the Thais allow are animal derived, the megadonts in particular, and we also see a hybrid dog species used as attack and guard animals by the army and the ministries. Emiko has somehow been able to remain hidden "in plain sight" as it were. She is owned by a farang named Raleigh who operates a night club and bordello. It is obvious that several "White Shirts" (the Environment Ministry) know of her, but bribes have silenced them. This backfires on Environment when Emiko later exhibits abilities which make the Thais think she has been smuggled into the country as a military operative.
I won't go into any more detail so as not to spoil things. While there are problems with certain parts of the narrative, Bacigalupi does have a talent that will be interesting to see develop over the next few years, and I don't want to dissuade anyone from reading this book. I've also read two of Bacigalupi's short stories set in this same imagined future, and they exhibit the same strong narrative flow balanced by a few of the same negatives. Bacigalupi has certainly been able to accomplish something that has eluded me...finishing a novel. Even the few short stories I've completed haven't satisfied me, they are much less polished than this book. I suppose I could end this with a paraphrase of a famous saying, "Those who can, write, those who can't, write reviews."
WindupStories.com, Bacigalupi's official website
Interview at LocusOnline
Bibliography at fantasticfiction.com
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