The Windup Girl: A novel of Big Ideas

Paolo Bacigalupi The Windup Girl SFF book reviewsPaolo Bacigalupi The Windup Girl SFF book reviewsThe Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

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.

~Rebecca Fisher

Paolo Bacigalupi The Windup Girl SFF book reviewsPaolo 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.

~Marion Deeds

Paolo Bacigalupi The Windup Girl SFF book reviewsI thought The Windup Girl was excellent. A dark, intricate and gorgeously written environmental dystopia filled with fascinating characters. For a debut novel, it’s a stunning accomplishment. Beautiful cover illustration, too.

~Stefan Raets

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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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

View all posts by Rebecca Fisher


  1. I have not read this book yet, but I’ve read the short stories set in this world — they were superb.

  2. Best book I couldn’t finish. We will meet again someday The Windup Girl…someday

  3. Excellent review, Marion. You articulated many of the feelings I had when reading the book, but never managed to write out in a coherent way. It’s a flawed but excellent book, and especially for a debut it’s a stunning achievement. My favorite works by Bacigalupi are contained in the “Pump Six and Other Stories” collection.

  4. Yes, Pump Six and Other Stories is excellent.

  5. I think Pump Six will be next on my list of his, but Shipbreaker, which is YA I think, looks intriguing too.

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