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The Windup Girl May 9, 2011

Posted by futurewired in Paolo Bacigalupi, Reviews.

Having noticed that the subject of my previous review shared the 2010 Hugo prize with another, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacagalupi, I thought it only fair to check out the co-winner; I’m extremely glad I did. The book melds together multiple strands featuring morally ambiguous characters into a richly textured, gripping account of a country under pressure, whose final transformation is triggered by the most unlikely of actors.

The Windup Girl is set in mid 21st century Thailand, after the ‘Contraction’ – declining oil supplies, global warming and bioengineered plagues having driven back the forces of globalisation The book might be described as biopunk – featuring genetically engineered super-elephants called megadonts, ‘New People’ like the Windup Girl of the title, whose stop start movements and impossible speed betray her artificial heritage, as well as at least one rogue scientist with a sizeable god-complex.

With fossil fuels on the wane everything comes down to calories, transformed via human or animal effort and energy storing springs, to run everything from computers to factories. Independent nations like Thailand are set against the American ‘calorie company’s’, who fight an ongoing war with the blight and disease that has wiped out most of the world’s food crops, and control the world’s markets via the usual nefarious methods – some of which certain companies are trialling in the real world as we speak.

The book follows multiple characters; an American calorie company man, his scheming deputy – a Malaysian Chinese refugee seeking to restore his status, the ‘Tiger of Bangkok’ and his protege – enforcers for the Environmental Ministry, as well as Emiko, the Windup girl, among many others. They all dream of power, escape, advancement, and their plans and searches collide together to bring violence and bloodshed to the streets of the capital.

The book’s themes you could say are very ‘on trend’; global warming, rising sea levels, food crises, corporations using gm crops as economic weapons, with a background of ethnic and religious violence (Hock Seng, the factory manager is fleeing a Malaysian purge of ethnic Chinese). The way the author works them together is more interesting however; you get a real sense of the impact of the environment – in the general sense of the word – on the characters, the magnitude of their surroundings, of structural factors on individual destinies.

One thing I found intriguing is that in a book expressly about political and economic conflict, the real revolution takes place almost out of sight, subsumed by most of the participants into their own struggles; the story of the Windup Girl herself. Emiko is created for one life of servitude and exploitation, an artificial Geisha hard-wired to respond physically to her master’s attentions, then abandoned to an even more brutalising existence. Exploited, uprooted, she eventually snaps and in her rebellion, she begins to realise her own true capabilities. Her dreams of escape, to a village of free Windups somewhere in the North, are dashed, but a chance meeting after the novels climax brings the opportunity to fulfil that dream where she is now. In the abandoned, flooded city of Bangkok the ‘New People’ can flourish. Of all the transformations by the end of the book this has the potential to be the most significant. While I don’t want to reduce this to a crude Marxist analysis the possibility that, just as the bourgeoisie creates its own gravediggers, humanity will create its own successors is an intriguing one.

Emiko is a troubling character in some ways – a passive victim, subject to self-loathing, when she finally does act for herself, her actions are reactive, instinctive. Her long term plan, to reach the Windup village in the North never really advances beyond the preliminaries. She moves from a position of dependence on one male character to another, and her ultimate freedom comes courtesy of another western male. All of this is of course written as the logical consequence of her nature and conditioning, and her struggle against her own physical and mental reactions makes for compelling, if unsettling reading.

Morally, the characters on display range from ambiguous to odious, most carrying out various acts of betrayal and/or violence against those around them. Anderson Lake, the calorie man, whom we begin the book by following, consorts with other Westerners in a sort of Graham Greene style of faded imperial glory, even rescues Emiko from the street, but nonetheless repels any form of empathy not simply on account the cause he represents – the corporate takeover of Thailand – but by his actions. He demonstrates affection towards Emiko but nonetheless directs others to witness and participate in her degradation.

Similarly Jaidee, the Tiger of Bangkok. An honest man in a corrupt system, by applying the edicts of the Environment Ministry unilaterally, regardless of bribes and backhanders, he brings down the wrath of the system on his head. I was reminded of Slavoj Zizek’s proposal at the end of In Defence of Lost Causes to reinvent the dictatorship of the proletariat as a response to the environmental crisis. A heroic character but part of a paramilitary organisation of white shirted enforcers, who burn and sterilise villages at the first suggestion of plague. The role of the good authoritarian, taken up by his deputy Kanya by the end of the book, is an interesting but ambiguous one.

A couple of other issues I noticed; one character, the Somdet Chaopraya, regent to the Queen, seemed to me to be an old stock character, the hedonistic adviser to a young monarch, that’s frankly a little overused by now. The last third of the book seemed a bit compressed; it kept the pace up, but some characters had a bit of a rushed development, others introduced maybe a little too late. But these are small criticisms of an ambitious and impressive work.

Paolo Bacigalupi has written another novel, a young adult work called Ship Breaker, as well as a number of short stores, some of which served as a dry run for the Windup Girl. There are a couple available to read online, so here’s a link to his website for more info;




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