The Windup Girl
By Paolo Bacigalupi
First Published: 2009
US Cover Illustration: Raphael Lacoste
Review © 2009 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Science Fiction (Post-Apocalyptic), Thriller
The Windup Girl is a fantastic first novel from an up and coming new author, Paolo Bacigalupi. This is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel where the world has been devastated by bioterrorism unleashed by multinational corporations engaged in genetic engineering of the world’s food supplies. Bacigalupi invented this world in a couple of his short stories but here he is able to completely flesh out a startling and complete vision of a scary future. The Windup Girl is one of the best new books of the year!
Not only does this story take place in a strange new future, it also takes place in one of the most exotic locations in the world, Bangkok Thailand. The reader is plunged directly into this post-apocalyptic future where food shortages are epidemic, fossils fuels are almost completely depleted and genetic engineering has been employed to both enhance and destroy life. While most of Asia has been devastated by bioterrorism, Thailand has managed to protect its agriculture, thanks to preserving one of the most extensive seed banks and thanks to the assistance of a rogue genetic scientist. The scientist escaped from his corporate life of luxury and settled near Bangkok to wage a genetic engineering battle against his old colleagues. He works to develop new strains of fruit and vegetables that can both withstand the new diseases and are fertile which offers an alternative to the monopoly on disease resistant sterile seeds sold by the multinational “calorie” companies.
Against this background, Anderson Lake has come to Bangkok ostensibly to manage a factory developing an improved spring energy storage device. However, his real agenda is to find seed stock that has gone extinct in the rest of the world and to find Thailand’s secret source of genetically altered seeds that threaten the profits and monopolies of his corporation. Anderson’s right hand man is Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee from Malaya who is a second class citizen in Thailand. What Anderson doesn’t know is that Hock Seng has his own agenda. As an added challenge, Thailand is not exactly stable due to competition between the two most powerful ministries of the land, the Environment Ministry and the Trade Ministry.
When Anderson meets Emiko, he is captivated by the beautiful windup girl, a genetically engineered model of New People designed to serve as the perfect companion for the richest Japanese businessmen. After being tossed aside by her owner and being trapped in a country that despises New People, she’s found herself trapped as a performer in one of the still plentiful Bangkok sex shows. Little does Anderson know that this delicate windup girl could change the course of history.
When Bangkok sex shows are included in a novel, you can be assured that the novel is not meant for the young or easily offended. The Windup Girl contains graphic sex and violence, sometimes at the same time. However, the sex and violence is not strictly gratuitous as these elements are important to the plot.
The writing in The Windup Girl is excellent with wonderful descriptions of a Bangkok that is rife with corruption and operates under martial law in an attempt to protect itself from the latest biological threats. Bacigalupi creates a thick atmosphere of tension as the city is under siege from within as well as from without.
I have to warn you that this novel doesn’t start off as a plot driven story at all. More than half of the book is spent setting the stage for the real action later. The future Bangkok is described in great detail as we get to know five main characters that come from very different walks of life and don’t seem too closely connected. The main characters are one of the best things about this novel as they are well developed with complex motivations and there are no clear cut good and bad characters.
After the prolonged introduction to the strange new world of The Windup Girl, a chain of events begins which threatens the stability of the country and the lives of the main characters. First, a raid by the Environment Ministry provokes the Trade Ministry. Then a couple of workers at Anderson’s factory die of a mysterious new disease. Finally, the windup girl herself triggers a change to everyone’s plans. From this point on, the action is fast and furious as tensions explode across the city.
With the fast pacing of the last third of The Windup Girl, the ending seems to come a bit abruptly but does not fail to satisfy. The good thing is that Bacigalupi keeps the reader guessing throughout. Obviously, another novel will be needed to further explore this fascinating world. While the rogue genetic scientist plays only a small role in The Windup Girl, the epilogue makes it clear he is destined to play a role in a follow on novel. He is such a complex and intriguing character that I hope to see him elevated to the status of a major character next time.
This novel is not for young readers or the faint of heart. But for those that enjoy science fiction, especially where you are immersed in an exotic future with gritty realism, I highly recommend The Windup Girl. It’s always exciting to find a talented new writer, even if I don’t know how to pronounce his name.