Novel: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The only Paolo Bacigalupi story I’ve read to date — “The Gambler” (reviewed here) — was fantastic, and led me to expect that the critical buzz surrounding the author’s first novel The Windup Girl (2009) is fully warranted. I can now happily report that it is, indeed; this is a remarkable book.

The post-petroleum future of The Windup Girl is a grimly transformed one: food shortages caused by mutating, crop-killing diseases, lack of oil-based transportation, a worldwide “Contraction” that’s resulted from slow, difficult travel and reduced telecommunications, a planet de-globalized. Thailand has survived by grimly guarding its borders, protecting its food science, and generally resisting outside influence. The Environment Ministry and its “white shirts,” while cruel and corrupt, have kept the predators at bay, while their natural rival, Trade, seeks to gain power through a “New Expansion.”

The devilishly plotted story involves the interconnected fates of various figures at the forefront — by chance or by choice — of the dramatically shifting political situation of this vividly imagined future Thailand. There’s Anderson Lake, an American corporate man nominally running a struggling energy tech factory but secretly pursuing disease-resistant seedstock for his company’s exploitation; Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee working for Lake, whose fallen position never stops him from angling for a return to power; Jaidee and Kanya, two prominent white shirts of the Environment Ministry; and Emiko, the eponymous “windup girl,” an artificial human programmed for subservience and tragically abandoned by her Japanese master to the clutches of a callous, pimping tavernkeeper. These distinct, alternating viewpoint characters provide various perspectives on — even as they influence — the powderkeg political situation. It all escalates gradually and brilliantly, and resolves with real power.

Bacigalupi’s writing is brisk and engaging, fiercely intelligent, and brings detailed retro-futuristic world-building vividly to life.  It had the feel of a convincing historical novel — that sense of detail and depth and truth that such novels can offer, as well as the focus on nation-shaking events — but, in this case, it’s a history of the future. It’s a bleak one, but also a powerful dramatic vision that asks important science fictional questions. What will happen to the world when the oil runs out? How will we feed the planet? What are the ethical consequences of creating artificial life? How do we balance environmental concerns with our flawed capitalistic system? Bacigalupi wrestles with these tough, dare-I-say Mundane SF questions throughout, and the results are consistently thought-provoking.

Not for the faint-of-heart, The Windup Girl’s grim message may be tough to stomach for some, but I found it a moving, hard-hitting tale of gritty extrapolative SF, and I’m anxious to read more of the author’s work.

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