The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is a rich dystopian fantasy that seemed to sit perfectly at the intersection of a number of interests near and dear to my heart.
To understand everything going on in this story of power and survival, a reader must have a hand in a number of different pots. In the near future, the world has coalesced around Bangkok as its thriving epicenter. Those familiar with current events will know that Thailand is tagging along with India and China as a surging developing country, and so it’s interesting to think about how it could have not only leapt ahead but flourished while current economic powers decline. Despite an acknowledgement in the end notes that this is not the case, future Bangkok seems an awful lot like present Bangkok, the crazyness of which compelled me to leave it after just one day while traveling the country. Poverty and commotion at the bottom compete with warring government agencies at the top for the prize of which aspect of society is the least stable. It’s a wonder the country managed to peak at all, but apparently they found a way.
Much of this has to do with the growth of genetic manipulation as an industry that both combats and creates a number of futuristic plagues: cibiscosis, blister rust, Nippon (Japanese) genehack weevil. These words complement a textual language that is both challenging to grapple with and sometimes slow to trudge through. Language fans will encounter a handful of Thai and Japanese words, travelers will meet with Thai names and places that must either be looked up or glossed over, science buffs will face some scientific concepts concerning calories and joules that add depth to how society functions, and everyone will have to slog through noticeable typos and errors that occur way too frequently (I read the Kindle version). Altogether, the thick prose always gives you something in the way of color and only occasionally drifts into the realm of over-writing.
Because of plagues that lead to famines that lead to starvation, the creation of new food sources is critical. At the beginning of the story, Anderson, an American businessman operating in Thailand, wants to get his hands on the next big genetic creation.
The story shifts between several points of view, and a lot happens before we finally meet the title character, Emiko, a Japanese “Windup.” The fun for the first quarter of the book was trying to figure out exactly what she is. Where is the line between machine and human? But figuring out what she is occurs simultaneously with severe scrutiny over what she stands for. Emiko is essentially a sex slave, which to a large degree is the purpose of her creation. Maybe it’s just because I lived in Japan for two years, but I think there’s a very special place in the Western consciousness for Japanese women as sexual objects. The author does a good job of linking cultural perspectives to characters, but I found more to resist in the insistence that we feel sorry for her. She is obviously the crux of the story, and her growth constantly comes in conflict with the premises for her creation and behavior. Although I could go along with most of it, I’m sure there’ll be more than a few readers for whom she slides into contradiction or cliché. She is the most problematic part of the story, but if you can buy her (no pun intended) then everything else will work great.
I did have a wonderful time with the story, which was both elaborate and expansive. The characters were interesting. I felt invested in the unfolding plot even though there were still some things that went over my head. I’m satisfied with the ending. Overall, a good reading experience.