My Body is Not My Own…
Having just finished Paolo Bacigalupi’s Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel, I’m left rather bereft at how to describe, let alone review, The Windup Girl. I am not a big reader of science-fiction or dystopian thrillers, which means that no obvious comparisons come to mind, and the setting and tone of the novel are so unique (to me at least) that they almost defy description.
Set in a future Thailand where genetically engineered “megodonts” (elephants) provide manual labor and “cheshires” (cats) prowl the streets, the world’s population struggles against a bevy of diseases brought on by all the genetic tampering that’s been going on. Oil has long since run out, Chinese refugees flood the cities, the seas are rising, and power now lies in the hands of “calorie companies.” These corrupt organizations can manufacture crops, though the “generippers” have designed the seeds to be infertile, thereby forcing the purchase of their products indefinitely. Corruption, blackmail and backstabbing are commonplace, and struggle for survival is very much a reality for all walks of life.
The titular character is a Windup Girl named Emiko, designed to be the perfect servant, trained never to disobey an order, and easily identified by her “stop-stutter” motion. Having been abandoned by her original owner and now peddled as a novelty sex-toy, Emiko is treated as a subhuman. In reality, she is railing against her engineering whilst dreaming of freeing herself from her life’s constraints. Yet despite being the book’s namesake, the novel contains an ensemble cast that is roughly centered on the doings of Anderson Lake, a company man who works undercover as a factory man whilst he combs Thailand markets for food that is thought to be extinct.
There’s also his secretary, a formerly wealthy Chinese businessman who has escaped massacres in his own country and is now an amoral survivalist, set on ripping off his boss, and Captain Jaidee, known as “the Tiger of Bangkok” who is incorruptible in his defense of his country, but who resorts to violent means to get what he wants. Lastly, there is Jaidee’s second-in-command, the stoic Kanya, who has a dark secret in her past that is completely at odds with her loyalty and respect for Jaidee.
No character is entirely sympathetic or completely vilified. Instead, everything is painted in a distinct shade of grey, from the calorie men who are out to make a profit by whatever means necessary (but who also strive to combat the threat of plagues that threaten mankind) to the environmental ministry who use violent measures against their own people to defend their country and its seed-farms. There is no main character, and so it is really the city of Bangkok that becomes the most important element in the novel. Bacigalupi writes in prose that manages to be both sparse and descriptive, and that brings his world to vivid life in all its heat, danger, cruelty, beauty and genetically modified wildlife.
For those interested in Bacigalupi’s version of Bangkok, he has already explored this dystopian world in his short-stories, notably “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man,” though familiarity with those works aren’t necessary to follow the story here. Rather, one of the most exciting things about the reading experience is the way in which you are thrown head-first into an unfamiliar world and left to sink or swim in it — much like the characters that populate it, you have to find a way of negotiating the chaos or you won’t last long.
I feel as though this review may not be adequate, simply because I don’t have enough experience in this particular genre to make an educated critique of the book. Maybe that’s a good thing though, as from a layman’s point of view, I can say that I was intrigued by The Windup Girl, was never bored, and didn’t stop reading until I reached the end. It’s imaginative, unpredictable, dark, and extremely well written.