A Book Review: The Windup Girl
by Paolo Bacigalupi
This was a book I saw recommended on the ‘Swords and Laser’ website and podcast, otherwise, I’d probably have never have heard about it. That said, I listened to the audiobook version – unabridged of course – from Audible.com.
The story is set in a Thailand of the future, amidst a dystopian world ravaged by the downside of genetically modified foods – blister rust and other diseases have left most crops unviable, meaning the world is scrambling to find enough food and electricity and easy international travel have disappeared with the last of the oil. Now people travel by dirigible airship and sail boats, and store energy in wound springs.
Thailand has somehow shut itself off from the failing outside world, despite mass atrocities across the border in Malaysia, and pressure from global food companies and their ‘calorie men’ to succumb to single grow crops, and keep their own food clean. This self sufficiency and wall against modified crops is ruthlessly enforced by the ‘white shirts’ of the environmental ministry who seek out and cleanse any sign of disease – a cleansing usually of fire and lime.
Into this world, a calorie man called Anderson Lake is sent undercover to a factory which makes springs, as he seeks out the elusive Thai seed bank.
By accident he meets Emiko – a windup – a genetically engineered servant named after their almost clockwork jerky movements – abandoned by her Japanese master to serve in a secret sex club. Plagued in the humid capital of Bangkok by her tiny skin pores her former master requested to give her smoother skin, but unable to break with her conditioning of subservience, she looks for a way out of her life to live in a fabled village of windups in northern Thailand.
The setting is original – I haven’t seen too many sci-fi stories set in Thailand, and the overall feel, with the lack of electricity clashing with the high tech of the genetic rippers produces a world akin to a hot, sweaty steampunk novel, though I’ve seen it referred to as a ‘biopunk’ work, which does kind of fit.
The writing is solid, truly achieving the feel of a failed society, the heat and sweat of a summer in Thailand, and the desperation of almost all the characters. All sides are represented, and whilst much of the story follows Lake and Emiko, the texture of the world is shown through an incorruptible white shirt and former Muay Thai fighter Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, his assistant, and a yellow card, Hock Seng, a formerly wealthy trader from Malaysia who now runs the spring factory since his entire family were slaughtered in his homeland.
The whole storyline twists and turns, and overall, the plot has a satisfactory outcome, winding through politics, military intervention and indeed the indigenous beliefs of the Thai people themselves, and their pragmatic approach to this new world order. It isn’t a book which relies on its setting to prop up a weak story, it balances the two quite well, which makes it easy to get into and quite satisfying right to the end. Indeed, at the end you might realise that the Thais, as underdogs have held together far better as a society, than the west represented here by the huge seed companies, and other nations which have embraced them and fallen.