The Windup Girl

Every now and again, it’s my turn to suggest something for my book group (which tends to alternate between fantasy and sci-fi reads). How do I choose? Simple — I just look at Hugo and Nebula award winners (well, I guess there’s a further process of winnowing that happens afterwards, but that’s my starting point). Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl won the Nebula in 2010 and was joint winner of the Hugo (alongside Miéville’s The City and the City — which I very much liked and which I have recalled several times over the last few months after visiting the Korean DMZ and seeing wreckage of the Wall in Berlin). Badabing, badaboom — choice made.

An immediate point of comparison (assuming you’ve read him) is Ian McDonald, who’s done rather a good job of setting post-cyberpunk (genepunk) sci-fi stories in places that are typically off the radar for sci-fi authors. River of Gods was set in India and The Dervish House (recommended) in Istanbul. Here, the story is set in Thailand, some time after a fragile status quo has emerged following a world-wide environmental catastrophe.

At the root of this catastrophe is hubris and greed — exactly that same hubris and greed that humankind currently suffers from. Some time in the future global warming has caused the oceans to rise, and Bangkok is spanned by an enormous sea-wall. Oil and coal are a memory for most people. In their place are wind-powered sailing cargo ships, zeppelins, gigantic genetically-engineered mammoths (replacing the pre-industrial horse), and exotic spring technology (replacing the battery). These are all sensible solutions (well, as sensible as gigantic mammoths and zeppelins get) to the problems that emerge when one extrapolates from current trends towards a hotter Earth and inevitable carbon poverty. However, the most original, compelling, and horrifying aspect of the book is the consequences of agricultural genehacking. American biotech firms have unleashed genetic plagues that have wiped out the vast majority of Earth’s biodiversity. Only their own commercial seed stocks are immune to these viruses, which must then be bought by countries lest they starve. As a further kick in the teeth, these seeds are sterile, which means they must be bought year after year (see the wikipedia page on the banal sounding “genetic use restriction technology“).

However, virus mutation means that even these seed stocks are immune for only so long. As a result, “calorie men”, amoral spies and agents of the American biotech firms, must scour the globe looking for fresh genetic material to fuel their research. This same mutation has also led to plant diseases spreading to humans. Many of the characters have family members who have died of blister rust, cibiscosis, or genehack weevil. Between starvation, disease, and nationalistic slaughter, there is a lot of death in this book.

There are a few protagonists: Anderson, the despicable calorie man who wants to plunder the secret Thai seedbank; Emiko, the eponymous windup girl, a high-end genetically-engineered courtesan; Jaidee and Kanya, two principled soldiers in the Thai Environment Ministry; and Hock Seng, an entirely unprincipled Malaysian-Chinese immigrant who works for Anderson and will do anything to claw his way back to a position of power. Hock Seng was probably my favourite character. He is tremendously flawed, greedy and selfish, but has endured so much and is so driven that it’s hard not to root for him.

The plot likewise has a few strands: Anderson and Emiko forming a relationship, Emiko trying to escape her horrendous existence in a brothel, Hock Seng attempting to sell Anderson’s tech to the local criminal head. All of this occurs in a city and country where it seems that phenomenal violence could break out at any minute (as happened in neighbouring Malaysia), not least due to the constant tension between the powerful and autonomous Trade and Environment Ministries. The former courts international contact, while the latter has an isolationist agenda.

Emiko is genetically programmed to be loyal and obedient, and to orgasm at the drop of a hat. This programming (plus the fact that she’s technically an illegal abomination who should be killed on sight) keeps her in her place in the brothel. Things start to come to a head in the novel when Emiko is raped (a depressingly repetitive event) for the last and most traumatic time. Essentially she unlocks her special powers and kills the defacto head of state. This idea, that rape turns you into a bad-ass superhero, seems a bit dodgy to me (and also something that only a man would come up with). It reminded me of a debate going on in comics at the moment about how necessary rape is as a plot device or a mechanism by which to develop characters (mostly it seems to be Grant Morrison having a go at Alan Moore). The general consensus seems to be that it is over-used, and I felt that to be the case here too.

The conclusion of the book, without giving too much away, involves some pleasingly poetic justice for Anderson, and a thoroughly hopeful trajectory for the much misused Emiko. But that’s rather beside the point. This isn’t a book that you read for the plot (which is solid), or the characters (who are almost uniformly unpleasant), but for the world building. It is an evil, how-to manual for Monsanto, plausible and terrifying. Let’s pray they never read it.

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