Chapter 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.