Published in 2009, The Windup Girl is the first novel by Paolo Bacigalupi. Winner of the Hugo and Nubela Awards (Sci-fi industry top prizes), The Windup Girl is set in a near-future Thailand. The kingdom of Thailand is a kind of fortress state, crouched in a defensive stance vis a vis the rest of the world. And not without reason; rogue diseases such as “blister rust,” “cibiscosis” and others only obliquely hinted at are poised to destroy Thai sovereignty. These diseases are both the unintentional, and quite intentional machinations of “calorie companies” (think Monsanto, Cargill, etc.) who have “taken over the world” by enslaving its peoples to genetically modified crops resistant to the latest competitive enterprise plagues. The plagues have greatly depleted natural biodiversity, and only those nations who have jealously cultivated and guarded seed banks have the bio-capital to engineer food and energy independence from the Iowa-based calorie companies. Bangkok runs expensive coal-fired fuel pumps to keep the city alive below rising seas, and the Environmental Ministry ruthlessly fights “Trade” and other foreign “invasives.”
Wind-Up creations, also called “New People,” are one such invasive. Like the androids and replicants typical to science fiction, these Wind-Up creations are human-like products of big industry and bioengineering. Emiko is the eponymous “Wind Up Girl,” and is the unwitting catalyst of the fast-paced political and environmental intrigue which propels the novel forward. Emiko was designed to be a sex-slave for a wealthy Japanese businessman who abandons her in Thailand (it’s too expensive to pay her passage back to Japan). In Thailand, Emiko is liable to be “mulched” by the zealous Environmental Ministry, and has to gain “employment” with a black-market sex club for protection from the Ministry. She is nightly assaulted and humiliated. While Emiko deplores her very existence, she struggles with her innate propensity to obey and please a master (traits supposedly lifted from Labrador retrievers in the gene-lab) and the indoctrination she received as a child. Emiko’s struggle to gain independence and safety ultimately breaks the fragile political and environmental truce the other characters strategize around for much of the novel, hurtling the nation and the characters towards an uncertain fate in a warming world.
The book is most distinctive and original in its conception of a post-fossil fuel, post-global turbo-capitalist future, and its interesting magic-realist moments (ghosts unable to reincarnate into a world too-full of suffering amble alongside living characters) are a cool genre-bending element. While Bacigalupi’s futuristic Thailand is rich in inventive detail, the fast-paced action and dialogue easily captivate the reader and keep you turning the pages so fast you won’t believe this beast of bookdom is over 450 pages. I shutdown my life to finish it in two days. Putting it down wasn’t an option.
If you wind up reading only one piece of genre fiction this summer, Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl should be it.
Review Submitted by: Shane D. Hall
Rating: Highly Recommended