A review of The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Once upon a time I read science fiction virtually nonstop. Twice upon a time, actually. First, as a teenager goggle-eyed over the prospects for encountering intelligent life elsewhere in the universe — life perhaps more similar to me than normal humans — and later, in the 1970s, when I actually wrote science fiction (or at least tried to) and even joined the Science Fiction Writers of America. (I’m an associate member to this day.) Of many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of science fiction novels I read over all those years, only a few stand out in my memory. I’ll list them in a separate post.
I fully expect The Windup Girl to join them on my list of all-time bests. It’s that good. Like so many of the other truly outstanding sci-fi novels, The Windup Girl won both the Nebula Award of the Science Fiction Writers of America and the Hugo Award voted by fans.
The action takes place in Bangkok sometime in the 23rd century. Sometime in the past, the oceans have risen twenty feet or more, and the city survives only because a visionary Thai king has built an enormous seawall, dikes, and pumps to hold back the waters of the annual monsoon. Genetic engineering has run amok around the globe, and the Thai Kingdom is one of few countries, perhaps the only country, still resisting the “calorie companies,” powerful food-exporting corporations headquartered in the American Midwest and in China. Having killed off virtually all traditional sources of food — and hundreds of millions of people — with genetically engineered plagues to increase their leverage in the market, the calorie companies hungrily eye Thailand and its own independent success in creating new fruits and nightshades capable of resisting the ubiquitous plant-killers.
In this grim environment, so long removed from the 21st century, one character “wonders if it was really better in the past, if there really was a golden age fueled by petroleum and technology. A time when every solution to a problem didn’t engender another.”
Emiko, the windup girl, is herself a product of genetic engineering, a “New Person,” a Japanese construct born in a test tube, bred in a creche, and trained to be an obedient secretary, interpreter, and lover to the businessman who buys her. Emiko is now stranded in Thailand by the businessman, who found it more cost-effective to buy a new windup girl back in Japan rather than pay her passage home. She now works as a despised prostitute in a Bangkok brothel.
Emiko is one of a large cast of memorable characters, each a finely rendered portrait of a human being tormented by personal demons, haunted by the ever-present ghosts of Thailand, and caught up in an ugly and unstable system. The others include Anderson Lake, an American calorie man who secretly represents AgriGen, one of the most powerful of the calorie companies; his secretary-manager, Hock Seng, an old Chinese-Malayan business tycoon who barely escaped the ethnic cleansing campaign waged by Malayan “Green Headband” Muslims; Captain Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, the celebrity “Tiger of Bangkok,” a fearless commander of the paramilitary “white shirt” troops of the Environment Ministry, charged with enforcing the genetic isolation of their country; Jaidee’s sidekick, Lieutenant Kanya, a humorless woman who fights like a demon; and the warring heads of the country’s two most powerful ministries, Environment and Trade, General Pracha and Akkarat.
Hock Seng’s musings seem to sum up much of what transpires in this brilliant novel:
“All things are transient. Buddha says it is so, and Hock Seng, who didn’t believe in or care about karma or the truths of the dharma when he was young, has come in his old age to understand his grandmother’s religion and its painful truths. Suffering is his lot. Attachment is the source of his suffering. And yet he cannot stop himself from saving and preparing and striving to preserve himself in this life which has turned out so poorly.”