Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel The Windup Girl won the 2010 Nebula Award. I understand why. This is a novel of Big Ideas, a bold move and an interesting premise. Bacigalupi’s reach exceeds his grasp, but a flawed, risky work of art often has more value than a success that played it safe.
In a vividly realized Bangkok of the future (100-150 years from now) Anderson Lake, an undercover “calorie man” who works for the mega-conglomerate AgriGen, schemes to get access to the rumored Thai seedbank, believed to hold genetic material of vegetables and fruits long extinct, which the Thai are cautiously reintroducing. AgriGen and one or two other companies have a monopoly on the world’s seeds and grains, and their seed-stock grows more and more susceptible to plagues and opportunistic viruses like blister rot. This bio-homogenization has led to starvation around the world. The calorie companies are in a constant race with the viruses, and constantly searching for new (old) material they can mutate and patent. Lake’s mission criss-crosses with the machinations of Hock Seng, an ethnic Chinese Malaysian refugee — a “yellow card” with precarious immigration status — and Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, a Thai folk hero who works for the Environment Ministry.
In this post-petroleum world, computers are powered by foot treadles and kink-spring technology creates mechanical batteries. Lake uses a kink-spring factory as his cover, and Hock Seng is the factory manager. Lake is on the trail of a new fruit he found in the market, and in the course of his search, he meets Emiko, the Japanese “windup girl,” a genetically engineered sex toy, programmed to be beautiful and submissive. Emiko is a vat-grown Geisha trying to be Pinocchio.
Despite the name of the book, the “windup girl” is not a very important character. She isn’t even much of a secondary character, and that’s a good thing. She was not a plausible person to me. Her alleged struggle between genetic programming and her desire for free will never rang true. Emiko is a toy to the characters around her who exploit her, and a tool to the author, who needs her to do one particular thing near the end of the book. Her apparent struggles, shown through the same interior monologue she repeats several times during the course of the book, are unconvincing.
This is a problem with the character, but the book’s structure adds to the problem. The first half of the book is slow, and the characters are passive. Things get put in place that are needed later, but they are disconnected from the actions of the protagonists. The only exception is Jaidee. Jaidee’s actions have consequences and resonance, and that may be why he is the most memorable character, and seems to be the most effective even when he fails.
In the first thirty pages of the book, Lake shoots a rampaging elephant-mastodon. This is a wild, breath-taking, suspenseful sequence. Then Lake does nothing much else for a very long while. He is supposed to be secretly looking for the origin of the mystery fruit. Instead, he hands them around like oranges. He goes to the bar where the Westerners — the farang — hang out and sips warm whiskey. Hock Seng engages in a lot of interesting activities that highlight his growing desperation and his hatred of the White Devils, but do not advance the plot.
The slack plot, so early in the book, when so many characters are being introduced, left me with too much time to think, to grow irritated with Emiko, who seems not tragic and noble but merely whiny. Despite her constant internal protestations that she would like to be “free,” the book slants her story in such a way that it is clear she does not want freedom, but Bacigalupi, for me, falls short of showing why she cannot even accept freedom when it does come to her.
These problems continue for more than half the book. Suddenly, on page 207, betrayals happen. Suddenly, the streets are alive and dangerous. Suddenly, a strong woman character emerges. Suddenly, fortunes are reversed, and reverse again, and things start to happen. People get shot. Things explode. The book lumbers off the runway and wobbles into flight.
The Windup Girl tends to read like three separate novellas that were broken into chunks and interleaved. The actions of our three main characters, all male, should create some tension and opposition for the others, and they don’t. Bacigalupi is primarily a short-story writer, with several stories written in this universe. There is enough good material here to reassure me that we will not see these kinds of structural problems in his later novels, and the world-building alone makes this a four-star book, even if the title character doesn’t work.
One warning: while a lot of the violence directed toward men is softened somewhat, seen in memory or after the fact, the writer subjects the windup girl herself to two brutal rapes that are described in detail. Plainly, Bacigalupi thinks he needs both of these scenes, which are nearly identical, in order to show us some development on Emiko’s part. For some people this will be very difficult to read.
The Windup Girl is a book worth reading for the world Bacigalupi has built and the story he tries to tell. It was a bold move and an interesting premise and despite the weakness of the structure and some of the characters, it mostly works.
So go read it. If you like war-games and military science fiction, you’ll probably like it even more than I did. Get your friends who don’t understand what all the fuss about climate change or genetically modified food is about to read it too. Then be prepared for a lively discussion that’s going to go on late into the night.