September 1, 2010
The Windup Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi
The Windup Girl is set in a future Thailand. A future post oil, post climate change, with genetically modified food and corporations waging war to protect their intellectual property. The setting is dense and evocative, you can feel the heat and humidity and the layers upon layers of ideas make the world feel realistically complicated. Instead of oil calories are the currency, unless you're wealthy and can burn coal, there are ingenious uses of hand and leg power in the story.
The Windup Girl of the title is a genetically modified woman, created in Japan as a kind of Geisha but abandoned in Bangkok, where she falls into the sex trade. She hears of a place where Windups can be free and dreams of escaping the city, made difficult by the fact that she is unlicenced. The sexual scenes involving the Windup Girl are very explicit, maybe you could argue unnecessary? But it leaves you in no doubt as to the plight of the woman, as to the depths we might sink against something we see as inferior and inhuman. It's a stark warning. And it means that when the Windup Girl eventually discovers some of her true abilities I was so firmly on her side that I was wishing carnage to ensue on her behalf.
Meanwhile other plots involve: politics between trade and eco organisations/factions in the government, the GM food corporations fight to expose Thailand's secret seedstock, an outbreak of a deadly virus, the plight of a refugee in the city and an (evil?) enemy gene wizard captured and working for Thailand. Like the world, the plots are intertwined and not laid out in a straight line, they weave and meander sometimes, but come together climatically.
I have a couple of criticisms. Firstly the argument for GM foods is very one-sided and presented as undoubtedly a bad thing. The only discussion of the benefits of GM is provided in a conversation with the "evil" gene wizard, so the reader is left in no doubt as to which side they should be backing. Personally I'm more optimistic about GM food so the lack of balance grated on me. Secondly the pacing of the first half of the book was a bit slow, whilst I enjoyed the world and the language I still wanted it to move a bit faster. But in general the novel is intelligent, thought provoking and full of great Science Fictional ideas.
The cover of the novel has a quote from Lev Grossman saying that he wishes Paolo would write ten sequels. Personally I don't. It's a great book, a really great book, leave it, I want to see what else he can produce, because I'm pretty sure there could be ten more original exciting novels.
One of this year's (last year's?) definitive Science Fiction novels.