Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (2009)

the-windup-girlThis post was supposed to be about something else. I’m in the middle of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station and I hoped to have it finished already, alas – no. The beauty of Kindle is that each and every book looks physically the same: it is contained within several inches of a very complicated, but very lightweight, machine. It is great, and I’m the first to sing paeans to this little smart device, but it can be greatly misleading. As with Perdido Street Station, which I simply didn’t imagine to contain 880 pages of dense, sometimes greatly irritating, sometimes demanding, prose. So, I’m in the middle of the New Weird canonic work, and Bacigalupi’s book came to my mind more than once during this reading. And for good reasons…

Bacigalupi’s debut won both Nebula and Hugo awards in 2010 (a tie with Miéville’s The City & The City for Hugo), as well as 2010 Locus Award and several others.

I’ve read The Windup Girl a couple years ago, during summer. Yes, it actually does matter – the novel is set in something like 23rd century Thailand, the weather is hot and unforgiving, and present on almost every page of the book. It’s a thoroughly depressing future: the biotechnology wars between different generipping corporations led to a terrible food crisis; genetically modified crop blights unleashed by rival companies caused the utter destruction of many edible plants. Those same companies now try to recreate them, but many are beyond their abilities to bring back, even with the biotech companies’ gene banks and technology they retained. Global warming is in full swing and humanity had lost the fight. There was a ‘contraction’ – a vaguely described calamity probably stemming from the fact that non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels finally ended. Now the world is not what it have been – what’s left of the globally interconnected world is a bunch of small city-states fighting a lost fight to retain the previous level of civilization. A world where

whole kingdoms and countries are gone. When Malaya is a morass of killing. When Kowloon is underwater. When China is split and the Vietnamese are broken and Burma is nothing but starvation. The Empire of America is no more. The Union of the Europeans splintered and factionalized.

People have become even worse; at least in Bangkok. I’ve never been there and I’m actually curious what is with that city that created its black legend. Anyway, Bangkok sucks. Hot, humid, always on the brink of destruction because it lies below the ocean level and its existence is totally dependent on pumps pumping out water seeping into its walls and on people manning them. Full of destructive human emotions, of greed and cruelty and rage, unfair and unforgiving. Full of vice, if you have money, or a thousand ways to die, if you don’t. In short, a city every sane person should steer clear from.

There we meet Anderson Lake, a biotech spy on a mission to acquire new genetic samples. He’s in Bangkok undercover, posing as a factory owner, but in truth he’s out to get a possible rouge gene scientist and an entry to Thailand’s seed bank. He seems like something straight from noir stories: elegant, ruthless, composed – until he falls for the windup girl: Emiko, an android created by Japanese as a thinking, breathing, human-seeming pleasure toy. Emiko was tailored for needs of a Tokyo businessman. When he got bored, he left her behind in Bangkok. But Japanese fondness for androids does not extend to Bangkok – many believe the New People are soulless, or evil, and almost all treat them as trash. It may be fear, it may be contempt, fact is, Emiko ends up in a bar as a sex toy tormented for pleasure of the watching clients. Lake falls in love with her – or at least something closest to love in that depressing future. The emotion that should redeem him (he’s a rather nasty piece of work) clouds his reason; he stays even when he knows he should leave. And he pays a price.

There are several other characters in the novel, although Lake seems to be the main one. Emiko is another; there’s Hock Seng, an entrepreneurial, crafty Chinese working for Lake and trying to build a new future for himself after his escape from the Malaysian pogroms; there’s also Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, a captain in the police forces of the Environment Ministry of Bangkok, the only genuinely decent guy in the whole book.

Bacigalupi’s worldbuilding is superb. I was swept away within the first pages depicting this broken world, where calories are the new currency, people are tools, and flavor is something almost forgotten. The language is elaborate, sophisticated, full of neologisms and short, journalistic, almost clinically detached sentences.

He slips the ngaw’s slick translucent ball into his mouth. A fist of flavor, ripe with sugar and fecundity. The sticky flower bomb coats his tongue. It’s as though he’s back in the HiGro fields of Iowa, offered his first tiny block of hard candy by a Midwest Compact agronomist when he is nothing, but a farmer’s boy, barefoot amid the corn stalks. The shell-shocked moment of flavor–real flavor–after a lifetime devoid of it.

Bacigalupi’s vision of Earth’s future is grim but believable. Not hundred percent; his utter lack of optimism seemed at times belabored and artificial, as if he made it a point not to show anything hopeful or bright, but that’s his world and his right. But his vision of humanity… Fair warning, good guys lose and bad guys thrive, every human emotion or gesture gets severely punished.

And here’s my biggest problem with this novel. Actually, several problems. Firstly, it’s very brutal, and there are several surprisingly violent sex scenes that I found deeply disturbing and revolting, and not on par with the rest of the novel (more graphic, more shocking than anything else). I don’t appreciate being put in a voyeur role. This is a matter of personal sensitivity and taste, so it may not be that disgusting to other readers. Secondly though, the novel s very naïve ideologically. It seems that Bacigalupi shows us this human cesspool only to drive home the point that humanity is lost. And that it’s only hope are the New People, the better people. Well, no.

Warning: mild spoilers ahead.

Bacigalupi portrays Emiko as a good person, as an innocent victim of human cruelty and superstition. We are played to root for her, for all the bad that happened to her, for the mistreatment and abuse and misunderstanding. At the same time he shows her as a-moral; beyond morality, because morality was not designed in the New People and not acquired by them, because it’s impossible in his world. And so the ‘goodness’ is artificial and brought about by context, not inherent in the character. This makes the ending entirely false for me. And the ending was a letdown for more than this one reason.

You see, I had hoped for a catastrophe. A bit morbid, but once you start reading the book, quite understandable. I hoped for a grand, beautiful catastrophe. What I got was… a wet firecracker. All this buildup… for this.

Still, I admire the amount of work; the amazing worldbuilding and the unique language. Reading Bacigalupi’s debut novel was a difficult experience: I’m not a fan of wallowing in human misery and low urges, and I vastly prefer characters that are more than two-dimensional symbols, but The Windup Girl is definitely a thought-provoking, intriguing read. Btw, is it me, or the Interstellar ripped off the premise from the book?

Score: 7,5/10

3 thoughts on “Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (2009)

  1. piotrek

    Well, I can only concur. I agree with pretty much everything said, including the parts about ending being disappointing. And naïvety. Heh. Worth reading anyway, and author clearly shares some ideas with Miéville.
    I’ve read it… over two years ago, actually, how the time flies, and I remember feeling – ok, cool, nice, but what was all the noise about…


  2. Pingback: Kameron Hurley, The Mirror Empire (2014) | Re-enchantment Of The World

  3. Pingback: Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water Knife (2015) | Re-enchantment Of The World

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