Sci-Fi & Fantasy Month: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen’s calorie representative in Thailand. Under cover as a factory manager, he combs Bangkok’s street markets in search of foodstuffs long thought to be extinct. There he meets the windup girl – the beautiful and enigmatic Emiko – now abandoned to the slums. She is one of the New People, bred to suit the whims of the rich. Engineered as slaves, soldiers and toys, they are the new underclass in a chilling near future where oil has run out, calorie companies dominate nations and bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe. And as Lake becomes increasingly obsessed with Emiko, conspiracies breed in the heat and political tensions threaten to spiral out of control. Businessmen and ministry officials, wealthy foreigners and landless refugees all have their own agendas. But no one anticipates the devastating influence of the Windup Girl.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi was first published in 2009 and has become one of the most critically acclaimed Science Fiction novels of the last few years. In May 2010 it won the Nebula Award for Best Novel and in September 2010 it won the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel (joint-winner with China Mieville’s The City and the City – click for my review).
With The Windup Girl being such an award-winning novel and with all the hype surrounding it in the press and in bookshops I was expected to be amazed. Unfortunately I was more bored than anything else. The thing about this novel is that it’s not terrible. It’s not even badly written. I can’t fault Bacigalupi’s writing at all (other than his over-use of Thai/Japanese words that most readers just won’t understand). Quite frankly, to use the age-old cliché, it just wasn’t my cup of tea!
When I read the blurb of this novel I thought it sounded exciting – the concept of a windup girl – a genetically modified human that is created to resist the diseases that are killing humans and plants in this futuristic world. The disappointment for me is that when it comes down to it – this novel isn’t really much to do with this windup girl. She’s more like a background character for most of the novel than anything else. The rest of the novel revolves around politics, economics, companies & factories, and war. After the first one hundred pages I was threatening to give up – but after a colleague promised it would improve the more I read on, I ploughed through with determination, waiting for the point where I would be left on the edge of my seat, flicking through the pages. Sadly, I just never got there. I was skim-reading, flicking the pages, waiting for its eventual end!
After reading other readers reviews on Amazon I wondered why the hell I ever picked this book up in the first place. It sounded nothing like anything I would enjoy. That’s where I think the blurb failed me. It promised something entirely different – a story of a windup girl who was included in the story for more than ten chapters.
There is so much happening in this novel I don’t even know where to begin. To be honest, most of it went completely over my head. I continually struggled to grasp this world that Bacigalupi has created, and the politics behind it all. So to give you an idea, I am going to cheat by sharing this description featured on Wikipedia, because I know I couldn’t do it half as well:
The Windup Girl is set in the 23rd century: Global Warming has raised the levels of world’s oceans, carbon fuel sources have become depleted, and manually wound springs are used as energy storage devices. Biotechnology is dominant and mega corporations like AgriGen, PurCal and RedStar (called calorie companies) control food production through ‘genehacked’ seeds, and use bioterrorism, private armies and economic hitmen to create markets for their products. Frequent catastrophes, such as deadly and widespread plagues and illness, caused by genetically modified crops and mutant pests, ravage entire populations. The natural genetic seed stock of the world’s plants has been almost completely supplanted by those that are genetically engineered to be sterile.
If you’re pondering whether or not to read The Windup Girl, I would ignore the blurb and read this overview, or read the reviews on Amazon and other websites.
The other part where this novel failed for me is the characters. The dullest of all the characters is Anderson Lake – the main character. He’s a very two-dimensional character who you know virtually nothing about. You can’t identify with him, and you can’t really feel anything for him. You won’t hate him and you won’t love him. He is just dull.
What I can commend Bacigalupi on is his knowledge of the Asian culture, after majoring in East Asian studies at university. He has also managed to present an interesting idea for a possible future of our planet. But what is most interesting about it is the way that in some ways it has almost turned back into the past. This is a world without electric, without most natural foods after they have all been killed by diseases, and hard labor is required to get anywhere in this life. It is certainly an interesting concept.
If you have an interest in Asian cultures, and the effects of global warming and other environmental changes to our planet then maybe this novel is for you! I have no doubt that other people will love this novel, just as my colleague did. Sadly, as I said, it just wasn’t for me.
You can check out Paolo Bacigalupi’s website here.
- The Windup Girl – A Review (nilaewhite.wordpress.com)
- Review – The Windup Girl (novel) (seaofstarsrpg.wordpress.com)
- Review: Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (mentatjack.com)
- The Windup Girl, By Paolo Bacigalupi (independent.co.uk)