Reviewed by Guy Salvidge
Paolo Bacigalupi’s debut novel The Windup Girl has won just about everything a science fiction novel can win, including the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell Award. This is a book, then, that came insanely hyped by the time of the recent Orbit edition. Does it live up to that hype? In a word, yes. This is epic science fiction that reminded this reader of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. I’m not sure if I’m quite prepared to declare it one of the best science fiction works of all time, but it’d easily be in my top ten science fiction novels of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Believe the hype.
The Windup Girl features a near(ish) future crippled by its energy needs. The world’s oil is gone, and with it mains electricity and international aeroplane travel. So it’s back to dirigibles, rickshaws and the sweat of one’s brow. There are even genetically engineered creatures called megodonts which are harnessed for their strength. Global warming also appears to have wrought havoc on ecosystems worldwide, not to mention the problem of rising sea levels which is keenly felt in Bangkok, where the action takes place. And then there’s the generippers and man-made plagues. This isn’t a future you’d want to live in.
Bacigalupi uses multiple character viewpoints to weave a story around a future Bangkok both literally and metaphorically on the edge of an abyss. Anderson Lake is a ‘Calorie Man’; an employee of the AgriGen company. AgriGen and similar companies hold the world in thrall through their control of genetically-enhanced foodstuffs. Despite the collapse of the US (and apparently many other nations), the North Americans still hold sway to some extent. Lake owns a ‘kink-spring’ factory in Bangkok, which is run by a Chinese ‘yellow card’, Hock Seng, who is a wily old survivor of the slaughter of his people at the hands of the ‘Green Headbands.’ Lake and Hock Seng are in fact working at cross purposes, as we discover early on, and neither are precisely what they claim to be.
The novel’s other main characters are Emiko, a Japanese ‘windup girl’, and Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, a ‘white shirt’ intent on protecting the Thai Kingdom from illegal (and dangerous) trade. Emiko is a genetically engineered human built for pleasure and subservience. Having fallen on hard times, she aims to gain passage to the land where windup creations such as herself live freely, while enduring all-too-frequent bouts of cruel debauchery at the hands of her proprietor’s clients. Meanwhile, Jaidee’s brazen attacks on his enemy, Trade, soon bring trouble to his family.
For me, the pleasure of reading The Windup Girl came mainly in the first half of the novel. Bacigalupi’s world-building is exquisite. Not only does he appear to have a handle on Thai custom and (future) history, but his novel is chock-full of ‘sense of wonder’ science fiction spectacle. Crumbling Expansion towers, the calorie men and their nefarious manipulations, the yellow cards and the atrocities that have brought them to Bangkok, the ngaw fruit and its shady inventor Gi-Bu-Sen: description of these elements created, in me, a reading nirvana I haven’t felt reading science fiction for many, many years. That’s about all a science fictional novel can ever hope to do, and The Windup Girl does it extremely well.
It was because I enjoyed the first half so much that I was slightly disappointed with the second half. I didn’t much like the way the plot spun into big-picture conflict toward the end, and I felt the central conceit of the unexpected killer to be a little weak. For such a long novel, the ending seems rushed. But this is still an exceptional novel featuring one of the best first chapters in the history of science fiction. I dare you to read it and claim otherwise.