The Windup Girl: Did Not Finish

The Windup Girlfantasy book review Paolo Bacigalupi The Windup GirlThe Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup Girl takes place in a alternate future Bangkok, Thailand. The world is dying due to a rash of genetic diseases that have decimated the world food supply. The only food available is via corporations who have created various disease-resistant food products. They sell to the populace for huge profits, except in one place: Thailand. Thailand has a real history of independence from foreign influences, and this still holds true in Paolo Bacigalupi’s dystopian future Bangkok. Somehow the people of Thailand have figured out a way to create their own disease-resistant foods. The corporations are determined to figure out how.

The story follows several characters, such as Anderson Lake, an American “calorie man” sent by the corporations to figure out how the Thai are developing resistant foods; Emiko, the genetically created “windup girl” who has been abandoned by her former owner in a brothel; and Jai Dee and Kanya, environmental ministry officers with their own agenda in keeping Thailand safe from farang influences (Thai slang for “white foreigner”). There are many more essential characters, almost too many to keep track of. There is one thing all characters have in common: none are very likable. Emiko, the fragile genetically created prostitute, is probably the most endearing character in the story. All others are scheming selfish bastards, or at least incredibly dense and morally obtuse.

I found the story itself a bit hard to follow. Seemingly important events are only mentioned briefly, whereas seemingly unimportant events are given three or four pages of in-depth descriptions. I was listening to this via audio, and it was hard to stay focused. It might have been easier if I had been reading print. I also want to note that the anti-cooperation/eco-terrorism political theme is prevalent and may chafe some readers.

Paolo Bacigalupi is an extraordinarily talented writer, and he certainly did his research. I have read very few authors who understand the idiosyncrasies of Thai culture. Having spent a lot of time in Thailand and around Thai people (my wife is Thai), I was very pleased to see that Bacigalupi has taken great care in incorporating this research into the story, but in the end it wasn’t enough to keep me interested. I need to identify with at least one central character in order to stay focused on the story. That may be a fault in my tastes, but it proved to be the downfall in my ability to enjoy The Windup Girl.

I had a difficult time writing this review. I gave it a DNF (Did Not Finish) not because it was bad, but because it simply wasn’t the book for me at the time I read it. I may someday finish the story, but I have too many other great reads ahead of me in the near future to struggle through it at this point. I listened to this on the audio release by Brilliance Audio. Once again Brilliance has unleashed a very high quality production. The book is read by Jonathan Davis, who was quite excellent and had the appropriate tone for the novel. There were some hard words to pronounce in English, and Mr. Davis did pretty well.

~Justin Blazier

fantasy book review Paolo Bacigalupi The Windup GirlChapter one — really interesting. Chapter two — really interesting. Chapter three — hit the off button about five minutes in.

Let me explain how that worked.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is the story of a near future earth where food is controlled by calorie companies because all the naturally occurring food sources have been wiped out by plagues, and the new animals and plants are genetically engineered and patented. This massive restructuring of basic sustainability, combined with the disappearance of oil and the oceans rising globally and destroying coastal cities like New York, combine to create a world that is at once strangely foreign and completely natural. It feels like a steampunk novel, with a weird combination of advanced technology and manual labor creating a dystopia that feels all too possible.

Chapter one is told from the perspective of one of the calorie men, Anderson, who is sent to Thailand to discover how the Thai people are creating their own food in defiance of calorie company patents and contracts, and to discover how to exploit the new sources that Thailand is developing. He’s a harsh, uncaring man, aware that he is serving private interests over the public good and completely okay with that.

Chapter two is told from the perspective of his personal secretary, Hock Seng, a Malayan man who is a yellow card, a refugee from China where the Malay have been persecuted and slaughtered by the Green Headbanders, radical Islamic fundamentalists. His secretary hates both Anderson and the Thai people equally and is intent on corporate espionage, trying to steal copyrighted information to earn enough money to reestablish his tribe that has been exterminated.

And then we got to chapter three, where we meet the titular Windup Girl, Emiko. She is genetically engineered, raised in a crèche and trained from birth to be a servant and a sexual companion in Japan, where the technology is understood and admired. When she is cast off and sent to Thailand, where she is seen as potentially demonic, she is sold into sexual slavery. I hit the off button when she is raped on stage as a form of entertainment. The graphic brutality turned my stomach. While recognizing that sexual slavery is reaching epidemic levels throughout most of the world, I do not want to read about it for entertainment purposes.

This is a compelling story. The narrator of the Brilliance Audio production I listened to, Jonathan Davis, is mesmerizing, with the right amount of bitterness and languid pacing to reflect the oppressive heat and horrible life circumstances of the people in the story. While none of the characters are likable, they are complex and recognizable as real people. This is definitely an issue story — dealing with topics of environmental degradation, food security and international terrorism, but done so in a way that hadn’t seemed preachy so far. I just couldn’t deal with the sexual violence.

~Ruth Arnell

The Windup Girl — (2009) Publisher: What Happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits? And what happens when said bio-terrorism forces humanity to the cusp of post-human evolution? In The Windup Girl, award-winning author Paolo Paolo Bacigalupi The Windup Girl SFF book reviews Bacigalupi returns to the world of “The Calorie Man” ( Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award-winner, Hugo Award nominee, 2006) and “Yellow Card Man” (Hugo Award nominee, 2007) in order to address these questions.

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JUSTIN BLAZIER (on FanLit's staff September 2009 – September 2012) Like many fantasy enthusiasts, Justin cut his teeth on Tolkien. Due to lack of space, his small public library would often give him their donated SFF books. Justin lives in a small home near the river with his wife, their baby daughter, and Norman, a mildly smelly dog. He doesn't have much time for reviewing anymore, but he still shows up here occasionally to let us know how he feels about stuff.

View all posts by Justin Blazier (RETIRED)


  1. Anonymous /

    I had a similar experience and decided to put the book on my “backburner” list for another time. A shame really.

  2. I agree with you. Although there are raving reviews of this book, it was difficult to follow and I couldn’t connect with the characters. I’m not complaining about the difficulty of following the politics because the same goes towards George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series which is still a great series otherwise. Being halfway through it, there were no point in the book that moved me. We are introduced into the deepest thoughts of the characters, yet there is a barrier. I’m not sure if I should continue reading or not.

    • Justin Blazier /

      There are many who love this book, and I can understand why they do. However, I was never able to connect with the story in any meaningful way. There are many others that have echoed similar sentiments. I was told things get twisty in the latter half of the book, so you might want to stick it out. Let us know how it went if you did.

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