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The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

01/05/2011. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

Buy The Windup Girl in the USA - or Buy The Windup Girl in the UK

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pub: Orbit. 505 page small enlarged paperback. Price: GBP 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-356-50053-9.

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‘The Windup Girl’ is Paolo Bacigalupi’s first novel. It has made a huge splash since being published in America in late 2009, winning both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2010, amongst others. So, is it worth all the hype?

The story is set in Bangkok many decades into the future. There has been an industrial Expansion based largely on genetic engineering and biotechnology, followed by a cataclysmic economic Contraction caused by climate change and widespread pandemics, which devastated humanity, the animal kingdom and most agricultural produce. Resource wars followed, killing millions and leading to the collapse of most nation states. Thailand is one of the few that has survived relatively intact. However, Thai society has regressed to a pre-industrial state where petrol and mains electricity are unavailable to all but the super-rich and most processes are powered by human or animal muscles, including the wonderful idea of a treadle-powered computer.

As the book opens we meet Anderson Lake, an underground agent for one of several huge American multi-nationals which now compete to develop the next disease-resistant crop for those who can afford it. His cover story is that he’s an entrepreneur setting up a factory which makes a new type of high-power spring, the mechanical equivalent of a powerful battery. However, the spring factory is just a front. Lake’s true mission it to try to gain access to the closely-guarded genetic database of fruits and vegetables which the Thai Government has kept safe during and after the Contraction. Lake’s employers hope to be able to use the information to develop new strains of pandemic-resistant crops which they can sell world-wide.

Lake is initially seen in the city’s main food market, where he finds a new type of fruit known locally as Ngaw. It has appeared seemingly out of thin air, appears to be resistant to all the current diseases and tastes great. However, it looks nothing like any fruit that Lake can find in his reference books. Lake wants to find out where it gets its disease resistance from.

During his search for information, he is introduced to Emiko, the ‘windup girl’ of the title. She is a genetically-engineered post-human slave, one of many developed by the Japanese during the Expansion to work as servants, secretaries, soldiers or, in Emiko’s case, a sex-slave. To ensure that these potentially superior post-humans could not infiltrate human society, they have been engineered to move jerkily, like clockwork mannequins, hence the nickname. Lake is captivated by Emiko’s fragile beauty. When she complains about her enforced servitude, Lake casually asks why she doesn’t run away and join the free community of windups that lives in the jungles of north Thailand. Emiko has neither heard of them nor even imagined that windups could live without masters. She starts to daydream about the possibility and spends the rest of the book trying to persuade Lake to help her run away.

Meanwhile, Captain Jaidee Rojjanasukchai of the Environment Ministry is fighting a rearguard battle to stop potentially diseased cargoes from landing at Bangkok docks. His problem is that the Ministry of Trade are pushing for import restrictions to be relaxed. Worse, the customs officials at dockside frequently accept bribes to look the other way when a dodgy cargo arrives. When Jaidee decides he’s had enough, closing the docks down one night and burning all the contraband cargoes, it’s a direct challenge to the power of the Trade Ministry.

Trade get their revenge by kidnapping Jaidee’s wife, demanding that he confess to various crimes and forcing him to resign from his job. He reluctantly agrees, hoping to save his wife’s life. However, the loss of face for his boss at the Environment Ministry is too much to bear and thousands of Jaidee’s fellow ‘white shirts’ are sent onto the streets in a show of force. The resultant confrontation between the two Ministries leads to civil war. Lake secretly offers his company’s support to the Trade Ministry’s forces and thinks his secret mission is almost home and dry. Then, out of the blue, a key official is murdered and Emiko is named as the prime suspect. There appears to be much more to the windup girl than anyone, including her, realised. Does she perhaps hold the key to settling the conflict or will she end up as just another victim of Bangkok’s violent politics?

‘The Windup Girl’ may be Bacigalupi’s first published novel but he has clearly served a full writing apprenticeship. His world-building is very impressive, producing a three-dimensional portrait of a future Bangkok that is vibrant, detailed and alive. The characters, both major and minor, are well-drawn, leading you to empathise with a lot a people who are not, on the face of things, particularly pleasant. He also pushes the plot along at a good pace, drawing you on from one chapter to the next.

If I was forced to make a criticism of the novel, it would be that the almost total focus of the narrative on Bangkok did lead me to wonder a few times how the rest of the world has coped with the Contraction. Is everywhere as technologically backwards as Thailand or are there still highways filled with moving cars elsewhere? Some of the technologies referred to during the story seem unlikely to have survived in functional form unless there remain some countries where an advanced industrial infrastructure still exists. A little more background on the world outside Thailand would have been helpful here. However, this is a very minor criticism.

In conclusion, I am happy to say that the various plaudits ‘The Windup Girl’ has received have been very well-deserved. This is an intelligent and well-written debut novel which portrays a dystopian future in a believable and engaging way. Bacigalupi mixes the personal and the political in such a way that you can’t help but want to know what happens next. Thoroughly recommended.

Patrick Mahon

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