The Windup Girl

Paolo Bacigalupi
The Windup Girl Cover

The Windup Girl -- A challenge, but worth it

Tar Daddoo

What is the Science Fiction Premise?

The Windup Girl offers two main Science Fiction premises:

This is presented to us in a future kingdom of Thailand.

Is the science of the premise explored?

For the most part the premises are taken for granted and not really explained. We see the consequences of the loss of fossil fuels in increased use of sailing vessels and dirigibles, or the increased use of kerosene. We see the consequences of global warming primarily in the rising of the seas and the flooding of major cities.

There is a bit more science brought to bear in discussing genetic modifications, but it is also not especially deep. There is a fair amount of discussion of the attributes being tailored into species, but less consideration of how feasible this really is.

Is the impact of the premise on an individual explored?

The story follows three or four threads of action. (It changes as the characters separate and combine.) One of these characters is a "new person" or windup girl in common parlance. The new people are genetically modified people, who have come into existence to help with tasks that their owners eschew. They are not raised in families, but in institutional facilities. While they have some superior capabilities, they also have certain built-in disadvantages. Her life is miserable, since she is illegal, despised by those around her, and forced into a degrading existence.

Another thread follows an American businessman, who has been sent to oversee a factory. The factory is really a cover for his real interest, which is to understand how Thailand has managed to remain independent of the food conglomerates. The American food conglomerates control most food production in the world, since they are the only ones with seeds that can resist the genetically modified crop diseases that have been unleashed.

In another thread we encounter an ethnically Chinese businessman who is now a refugee, stripped of his former wealth, and anxious to regain it. He and many fellow refugees are lucky to have survived the purges that occurred as Malaysia's economy contracted along with the rest of the world. As an experienced and literate businessman, he has obtained a job at the American's factory, but one of his primary qualifications is that he comes cheap, since the refugees are at the lowest rung of the economic ladder.

The final thread follows a pair of environmental police. Their job is to ensure that fuel use laws are enforced, new species invasions are prevented, and new plagues are quarantined as quickly as possible, Imagine the Health Department with guns, expanded duties, and an ever-present need for action. They are powerful, feared, respected, and often bribed.

Is the impact of the premise on society explored?

One of The Windup Girl's strengths is its portrayal of the shifts in power that accompany the envisioned future. Some individual's fortunes fall because they are caught by the changes, while others are able to take advantage of the situation. Trade and business has shifted in unpredictable ways as old techniques become useless in light of changed power needs, while others thrive.

As for the Thai society, it is much changed from what we imagine it is like today. Undoubtedly some features, such as bribery, sex parlors, and the strange political struggles for power within the kingdom are reminiscent of current situations. Other features, such as the struggle to keep the city from being flooded by the sea, the need for environmental police, the changed nature of international trade, and the changed nature of interactions with neighbors -- Malaysia, Vietnam, and Burma (Myanmar) -- are all a consequence of the Science Fiction premise.

How well written is the story?

The words flow well, but there are other aspects of The Windup Girl that make it difficult.

First, the setting is not especially familiar to most of us. Distinguishing when the author was drawing on his impressions of current Thai society and when he was extrapolating was often difficult. For example, was the extensive bribery a comment on current practice or a comment on what any society would fall into as individual fortunes collapse. Also, consider the difficulties portrayed in Malaysia. If you are not aware that Malaysia is next to Thailand, is low-lying, is predominantly Islamic, and has a major population of ethnically Chinese, then one aspect of the novel will seem as if it arrives from nowhere rather than being a reasonable extrapolation of how economic pressures can translate into ethnic persecutions.

Second, a major subplot focuses on the windup girl's need to seek employment in the sex industry. She is trapped in this situation and substantially degraded by it. While the book does not revel in these scenes, it does not blink either. This mixture of sex and violence is very disturbing, but -- as it turns out -- important to the story.

Finally, it can be difficult to ascertain the author's position on the situation. We struggle to find someone we consider worthy, but it is a challenge. With the exception of the windup girl, who is mostly powerless and alien, everyone else is a complex mixture of likableness and personal failings. In truth, this is a strength of the book, but it defies our preference to find a perspective we can trust.

Can I recommend the book?

I cannot deny that I was challenged by this book. The settings are strange, favoring -- if not requiring -- a knowledge of Thailand. The action is often cruel or venal. It is hard to find anyone you like. And, the future is more asserted than explained. Moreover, it is quite complex, following multiple motives through a changed economic and political landscape.

Upon reflection, however, I think it is all these challenges that lead me to recommend the book. Many, if not most, of the changes in the society relate directly back to the Science Fiction premises of fossil fuel depletion, global warming, and genetic modification. The author's vision of how these changes will impact the individual, the economy, and the nation is ambitious and impressive. He reveals all this through the lives of his many characters rather than simply telling us. That he does this while maintaining an ambivalent view of human nature is disheartening, yet somehow realistic.

Tar Daddoo