Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl has a strange title. One that gives the impression you’ll be reading a clockpunk story with automatons. You won’t. Contrary, you’ll be reading a story focusing on global warming and biotechnology, which will draw you into an intriguing, dystopian world, set in 23rd century Thailand. The book’s gorgeous cover had me intrigued, it looked like I was about to read a travel blog from the future. A mix of dusty street markets, pin-pointy skyscrapers, and Thai Buddhist temples. And what was a giant elephant doing on the cover of a biopunk science fiction novel? No, this was a Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel, and the blurb from Time Magazine stating, ‘Bacigalupi is a worthy successor to William Gibson,’ wasn’t far from the truth. Though I personally preferred The Windup Girl to Neuromancer.
The world’s resources are depleted, and society is dominated by megacorporations, whose monopoly on biotechnology gives them sovereignty over the masses. OK, isn’t that already happening? Scary. Now, Thailand has managed to be the exception, managing to preserve reserves of genetically sustainable seeds, as well as securing its borders from manufactured plagues and threatening bioterrorism brought about by economic hitmen. In this setting, and with the absence of oil and petroleum, giant springs are manually wound by genetically altered elephants, amply named Megadonts, and are used to store energy in those very same spring-driven motors. Quite the surprising solution and it explains the massive elephant on the book’s cover.
So, it’s from one of these hitmen, Anderson Lake, that we are introduced to the ‘Windup Girl’, Emiko. An enigmatic and attractive creature. She is one of the New People, who are slaves, soldiers, and toys to the rich, but Windups are illegal in Thailand. Emiko is an engineered human, created and programmed as a kind of geisha servant. She was originally a sex companion to a Japanese delegate, who was on a diplomatic mission and was left abandoned by her owner. As were other Windups once affluent humans got bored of them.
There is a lot you can interpret in the story as warnings of what the future of the present world will end up suffering if humanity does not act to solve current environmental problems. Against the backdrop of this dystopian future, Bacigalupi unfolds events and advances the story by immersing the reader in the lives and struggles of the protagonists. Offering a sense of nostalgia, engaging the reader empathetically, such as Emiko’s longing for her former master’s embrace. Or discovering the deeper machinations of Anderson Lake’s mission, who pursues his goals with unbending thirst and assertiveness. The two meet when Anderson meets Emiko in a sex club where she offers information for help in finding her freedom.
The book holds up well years later. Though it’s frightening to see a lot of what is written in its pages is unfolding in the news and social media today. A lot of the environmental issues in the story happen behind a veil of political friction, just as they are happening now. Emotionally tense, The Windup Girl is a remarkably intelligent story, which I highly recommend.
‘Politics is ugly. Never doubt what small men will do for great power.’ –