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Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Title: The Windup Girl
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Reviewed Format: hardcover
Release Date: September 15, 2009
Pages: 300

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is intelligent and frightening. Agricultural companies rule the world, distributing sterilized versions of crops long ruined with diseases like blister rust, cibiscosis, and scabis mold. The Earth of the future is one gone to waste; politics, climate, and resources like food and energy (i.e. oil) have deteriorated. In Thailand, the government has set up factions to control their most precious material: a genebank containing original crop DNA free from existing disease and genetic enhancement, the epitome of all that is natural and good to the Thai people.

With plagues ravaging crops and making people sick (and Agricultural companies barely staying on top of the latest strain), the Thai government is determined to police imports and keep their country thriving amidst a global crisis that threatens to metaphorically tear down the pumps that keep the capital from drowning in seawater. The Environment Ministry monitors the borders under the guidance of Captain Jaidee--one of five narrative viewpoints--the ‘Tiger of Bangkok’. He ruthlessly enforces the law, going so far as burning incoming material under even the faintest trace of suspicion. Jaidee’s earned himself a reputation that grates against the Trade Ministry’s ability to import and export items and profit from more lucrative, albeit shady, deals.

Anderson is a westerner who works for a Agricultural company in Des Moines. He was sent to Thailand under the guise of the SpringLife factory owner, manufacturing a renewable energy source called kink springs, to barter for influence and gain access to the genebank. Hock Seng is a worker who fell under Anderson’s jurisdiction when his predecessor, Yates, failed bring the company results. Hock Seng is (if I have this right) not a Thai native, he’s a refugee from China who blends in at the risk of being subjected to the ridicule and contempt his lower tier status as a non-native grants him. Although he works under Anderson, his dislike of the farang, or foreigner, is fueled by a personal desire to undermine the man’s authority and steal information to sell to suppliers eager for a step up in competing markets.

Lastly, there is Emiko, the genetically altered Windup Girl invented by the Japanese that stands against everything the Thai find wrong with the global crop production: artificial, sterile, and soulless. She was left abandoned by her former owner and lives as a prostitute, forced to barter favor with her new owner by performing to the perverse nature of her customers. Emiko is all too aware of the risk she poses should the authorities find out she’s been living inside Thai walls and succumbs to her owner as obediently as her programming demands of her.

As the titular character, Emiko really steals the show. In a novel that thrives on political and personal motivations fueled by greed and power, it’s a refreshing, albeit sobering, perspective to read Emiko’s struggle to simply be. She was designed poorly for the Thai climate with tiny pores and suffers frequently from overheating problems. Her jerky, twitchy movements instantly reveal her true nature and elicit the shameful epithet, “heechy keechy.” When her existence is abhorred and rejected by the Thai way of life, she’s come to understand the symbolic threat she poses in the brewing war between the Environmental and Trade Ministries. Her development throughout the narrative follows the political maneuvering going on around her, especially when she acts against her programming and unwittingly causes an uproar to tip the already agitated scales of political upheaval.

She’s so integral to the plot and symbolic of the dilemma facing everyone and everything in this novel: survival. It’s the thematic pulse of The Windup Girl and works on multiple levels, which, to the author’s credit, is only a small part of what made this book so fantastically satisfying. The characters are dynamic, written with a studied understanding of the disparate elements that influence every day life. The setting is amazing. Bacigalupi exemplifies a strong grasp on modern technology and politics as he extrapolates our world to the believed future of Emiko’s Thailand. It’s a frightening reality made all the more influential by the connections apparent to habits and the scientific endeavors of today. It’s as much about survival as it is about progression and where the two must inevitably meet. Whether that’s to our benefit or not is yet to be seen, but Bacigalupi left me floored.

I don’t think anything I write can or will do this book justice. At this point, I want to go back and reread the book to pick up on everything I missed. It’s not wise to wade through the weighted (not purple, just weighted) descriptions with impatience, or skim the exposition in any sense of the word. The cities and streets thrum with the vitality of Bacigalupi’s talent. The secrets of understanding the plot and thematic interests rest in the entirety of the pages--nothing can be skipped; there is no pause in the narrative where one protagonist sits and explains what’s going on, what’s been going on, or what happened to bring us here. It’s a true “show, don’t tell” story and any reading would do a disservice to the text and the reader themselves should The Windup Girl be gobbled up for plot, rather than for gratifying experience of reading a well-written SF book.

From what I understand, The Windup Girl, while being a debut novel, is the product of a couple of short stories written in the same world, “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man.” I was a little worried that, not having read either story, the book would be too influenced by the two, would not stand on its own without having read his previous work, but that wasn’t the case. If any one else has the same concerns, don’t worry. You’ll be fine.

I’ll definitely be watching out for Paolo Bacigalupi titles in the future!


Lily Child said...

I have seen a couple reviews on this book pop up. Sounds really interesting. I may just pick this up when it comes out in paperback. Lovely review Erika. :)

Erika said...

Thank you! It's so good, you should keep an eye out for that paperback. There is a lot I didn't mention, but the book lends itself to a thematic study, too. I really do want to reread this one. :)

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