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Book Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup Girl Genre: Apocalyptic Fiction, Science Fiction
Hardcover: 300 pages
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Publication Date: September 15, 2009
ISBN-10: 1597801577
ISBN-13: 978-1597801577
Author Website: Paolo Bacigalupi

In The Windup Girl, Paolo with-the-unpronounceable-last-name (Bacigalupi), uses fiction to provide social commentary on such things as the environment, big business, international relations, and religion. Using themes of abandonment, failure, and the “other”, Bacigalupi provides a tale of political intrigue and power in a near future Bangkok.

The world is suffering under several destructive maladies which have killed off many of the fruits, vegetables, and grains the world is dependent on for food. Only the power of the generippers makes it possible for mankind to survive. Each country zealously guards its stockpiles of seeds in order to ensure genetic diversity. Anderson is an agent for the big genetic companies of the American Midwest. Hiding behind a manufacturing front, Anderson seeks access to Thailand’s seedbank and a rouge generipper. But along the way he meets a young windup girl, a genetically enhanced (and unenhanced) human being built by the Japanese for the purposes of pleasure. This seemingly innocuous event triggers precipitous events that will change the nature of Bangkok and Thailand’s precarious balance of power.

This is not a story that ends well, at least for most involved. The story is told through several perspectives. Anderson is one, Emiko the windup girl another. There is also Hock Send, the Chinese refugee from Malaysia who serves as Anderson’s assistant, and the dual team of Jaidee and Kanya, a man and woman who are the representatives of the Environment Ministry – those tasked with protecting Thailand’s internal security from internal and external threats.

Most of the novel is given over to Bacigalupi’s social commentary. The story reads primarily like a list of things that Bacigalupi thinks are wrong or immoral, problems he sees within human societies. The list of atrocities is significant, and these are all problems that are found within society, but at times the internal monologues and list of social ills overshadows the story itself.

The story is does not end well for most parties involved in the story. The Windup Girl is a story of social revolution and few of the characters leave this near-future Bangkok unscathed. It is a fascinating tale, unusual both in its content and location. Few others, save perhaps Ian McDonald, have used the opportunity presented by the history and culture of the East to such great effect. To those raised in a Western Civilization, the novel is full of the unknown and the strange, but those with political and historical acumen will notice that although Bacigalupi is positing a future, he also reaches into a recent and turbulent past. Such a grounding in reality gives The Windup Girl a powerful emotional punch.

Though at times the social commentary slows the story down, Bacigalupi creates interesting characters and does what SF does best. He uses the past and probable future to philosophize about the nature of humanity, thinking deeply about the effect that science can have on societies. It makes for good, if depressing, fiction.