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Review of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

By / June 17, 2012 / no comments

The world is in its 23rd century. Run away global warming has raised ocean water levels, carbon based fuel sources have all but run out, energy is stored in largely, efficient springs wound by hand or by genetically modified animals  acting as biological engines and agricultural companies aided by mercenaries, spies and scientists run-amok as the modify their own crops and create vermin and diseases that will kill the crop of their rivals resulting in multiple instances of mass famine and large disease outbreaks. This is the world of biopunk, a genre which saw what Gibson had done with computer science and thought it could be applied to biotech, the environment and genetic engineering. This future is disturbing in its prescience and gorgeous in its detail.

Thailand, the focus of The Windup Girl is run by a triumvirate composed of Akkarat, the Minister for Trade, General Pracha, the Minister of the Environment (note already the political disconnect between this and our world) and the regent for the youthful Queen of Thailand. Akkarat and Pracha’s rivalry, and their relationship with the agricultural businesses, is the book’s central conflict. It also represents a laudably contemporary conflict between those who favour open-markets, globalisation and free trade here represented by Akkarat, who would like to open the Thai market, and the forces of protectionism, populism, environmentalism and cynicism towards big business who are represented by general Pracha and, closer to the narrative at hand, Captain Jaidee, who use strict trade rules, popular support and occasional violence to restrain Akkarat’s ambitions.

Jaidee, the Tiger of Bangkok known for his skills in muay thai (Thai kickboxing) and his courage, is an extraordinarily popular figure among the Thai people and claims hero status among his fellow White Shirts (enforcers for the Environment Minister). His recklessness and dedication to duty makes him a familiar character to many, but its an enduring archetype for a reason. By his side is Lieutenant Praya who is one of the novel’s most interesting characters. Her personal arc throughout the novel is also its most convoluted, and it is a testament to Bacigalupi’s ability to characterise that she remains believable and sympathetic.

There’s also Anderson, the closest thing this ensemble cast has to a protagonist, is an economic hit man working for AgriGen. He uses his job as a factory owner as cover for his espionage activities; his ultimate goal is to find Thailand’s seedbank, a store of novel genetic information for food and incredibly valuable in a world where most common crops need to be updated constantly lest they die at the hands of one of the genetically modified diseases. He begins out stoic and harsh, a man doing his job and trying to get out of the corrupt and violent sink of misery that is 23rd century Bangkok. It is his first meeting with Emiko, the eponymous Windup Girl and a former Japanese slave, now illegal contraband hiding in Bangkok, genetically modified for beauty (who is also prone to serious overheating), that softens him and shows his human side. His infatuation and burgeoning romance with her makes him a character worth reading about. Not to mention the fact that Emiko constant struggles with her artificial nature, subhuman status and biological programming to obtain some semblance of independence and status, even if only from herself, is very compelling and ultimately provides us with the book’s least tragic ending. The gradual unlocking of her latent genetically modified abilities is also exciting and leads to some remarkably well written scenes.

Bacigalupi’s greatest strength, demonstrated with full force in this novel, is his world building. The Bangkok he creates, and more broadly his Thailand and his world, are just incredible. Society has been altered by catastrophe and those changes were mapped and plotted and eventually portrayed by him with incredible detail and dedication to realism. He created an extended and intricate network of ideas that connect every facet of society. The best example of this is the smuggling and black market in elicit fuels and biological goods and the culture that grew up around it to support it including corruption complicity and a little bit of realpolitik from the White shirts met with hypocrisy from the people and propped up by a lattice of criminal organisations both foreign and domesticated, incorporated and not. This is met by a counter culture a harsh reform minded group within the White Shirts who seize power within the novel (inspired by Jaidee). Bacigalupi’s world is one of the best in science fiction and a likely source of many of the deserved comparisons he’s received between it and Gibson’s Neuromancer which he matches not just in tone but in substance.

The Windup Girl is exceedingly well written and has a great cast but it isn’t perfect. It drags in parts, certain scenes far outliving their purpose and resulting in a somewhat bloated book. The plot features a slow subdued build-up, and more than a couple red herrings and false leads, and when it finally reaches the ending some of the climactic events are a bit of a letdown. This latter complaint applies especially to the eventual meeting with the enigmatic Gibbons, though this is mitigated by both the battle that culminates the plot and the denouement. Those last few dozen pages are perfect and very satisfying.

The Windup Girl is not merely one of the best examples of world building science fiction has done for a good long time as well as a sterling specimen of the recent rise of the (insert word)-punk subgenres spawned by the work of William Gibson and will appeal to any fans of the latter.

About the author

Ben

Blog editor, admin and founder of BestFantasyBooks.comYou'll find me on the BestFantasyBook forums and spending my spare time reading fantasy books and writing lists for this site. In fact, I have no spare time -- running this site IS my spare time!

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