Book review: The Windup Girl

by Paolo Bacigalupi

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The Windup Girl Image by Moshe Reuveni licensed under Creative Commons

This was a book that came highly recommended by a trusted source and no wonder! It feels like top-of-the-shelf steampunk and reads like some of the best fantasy fiction I know. The characters all have strong individual voices, and in the book’s 350-odd pages, a couple of characters go through intense internal conflict or develop and change subtly.

At first the title made me think of gears and clockwork and even the girl’s described movements seem almost steam-powered, but about a third way in I realized she’s simply a genetically engineered organism. Well, “simply” doesn’t really do it justice, because it is implied that her human genes were spliced with a number of other animal genes. One character jokes that she must have some Labrador in her to be so automatically and helplessly obedient. Through the course of the book you realize how far-reaching the bio-engineering was – in many ways (some of them quite dangerous) she is the “improved human organism”, though she is not aware of this and her manufacturer certainly tries to train and punish out even the inkling of such a thought from all young windups. In fact, to further create a gap between windups and regular people, they are made more identifiable (and therefore isolated and excluded from “normal society”) by their so-called heechy-keechy movements: a stutter-stop motion. 

In terms of page coverage Emiko (the windup) appears in less than half of the book, but she has a perpetual presence in the background and of course her actions, her destiny, are what trigger a tipping point and changes the world permanently in no small way.

Considering the context and the plot, Bacigalupi paints a very dismal, if vivid almost tangible, picture of a post-apocalyptic world; a world after intense climate change has caused whole cities and territories to be washed away or engulfed in water. In fact, the city of Krung Thep (i.e. Bangkok) where the story takes place, holds that same fate at bay solely by the inadequate “solution” of simply building a wall to keep the depths at bay (a political equivalent of sweeping in under the rug, until the rug is a mountain in the middle of the room). There are two more legs to the post-apocalyptica: food and tech. Technology and electricity as we take it for granted does not exist anymore and any surviving tech or machines are worth more than people’s lives. The food dilemma is interesting, because it kind of sounds like GMO gone totally and horrendously (even maliciously) wrong. The way it’s described is western agricultural superpowers (think Monsanto) has genetically engineered superior crops, but they didn’t stop there; they also created food diseases to force other growers, regions and even countries to buy resistant seed stocks from them… except the blight got completely out of control, mutating and evolving until it killed almost all food crops and species on the planet. There is a distinct feeling of colonialism echoing into the future. So, this is the colorful backdrop, itself just as curious and engaging as the characters and developments! 🙂

Thailand is an interesting setting – there is enough anti-western sentiments to create a volatile social mix and the culture itself is so different on such a fundamental level…   I wonder if the author spent much time there; it certainly seems like he built his fictional society on first-hand experience . These cultural differences are used expertly to create an atmosphere and as a plot device itself. The four prominent cultures in the story are Caucasian American, Thai, Chinese immigrant and Japanese businessman. I like how characters use words and expressions from their native language authentically (like tamade, gaijin or farang) .

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