Review by John for: The Windup Girl ~ by Paolo Bacigalupi; 2009 Night Shade Books.
Wonderful and highly imaginative, it’s a dystopian novel set in a world-gone-wrong that is both crazy and disturbingly believable. All wrapped up into a complex and many-layered story, this book was a delight to read.
About: It is the 23rd century, the world has been ravaged by global warming and most traditional carbon fuels have been used up. With oil and electricity now almost non-existent, biotechnology is the dominant force in the world – and not in a good way. A few biotech firms (known as calorie companies) essentially rule the world. While competing fiercely with each other, they tightly control food production, use bioterrorism to destroy competitors’ foodstuffs and natural plants, and strive to replace all natural seed stocks with genetically modified seeds engineered to be sterile. As the calorie companies use their huge private armies to help achieve dominance, much of the world’s population is close to starving and is ravaged by plagues and diseases, mostly caused by genetically modified crops or by mutant pests.
Thailand has striven to isolate itself from the rest of the world and from the calorie companies, by putting up strong barriers, fiercely guarding its natural seed stocks, using its own gene hackers to create new food supplies, and using the Ministry of the Environment to enforce harsh laws protecting Thais from disease and from outside interference. But selfishness and natural greed are now putting Thailand at risk as powerful politicians start to push back against the Ministry.
Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, known as the Tiger of Bangkok, is a captain of the White Shirts – the pseudo-military wing of the Ministry. Courageous, fearless and unwilling to take bribes, he is an icon among the White Shirts and fights to keep Thailand free of foreign influence. But he is making powerful political enemies and is being betrayed by someone within the Ministry.
Meanwhile Anderson Lake, a secret agent for one of the most powerful calorie companies, has set up a local factory in Thailand to act as a cover to hide his real goal. But life for Lake becomes a lot more complicated when he becomes involved with Emiko, a beautiful windup girl – a Japanese-designed, genetically engineered, humanoid slave. Emiko has been abandoned by her Japanese master and now lives as an illegal alien, being forced to work at a seedy night club in exchange for having the club owner pay police bribes.
With the future of independent Thailand at stake, things come to a boil as corruption, greed, politics, revenge and self-preservation push the characters towards a thrilling climax.
John’s thoughts: While set in the future and classified as science fiction, essentially it’s a people story about the things that shape and motivate people. And in this story there are no heroes. When I was about two thirds of the way through the book I wondered how it was going to end and asked myself how I wanted it to end – and I couldn’t answer the question. It was like everything and everyone was corrupted somehow and a good ending to the story just wasn’t possible. There wasn’t anybody that I really wanted to “win”. I guess that is part of Bacigalupi’s message; when it comes to global politics, corporate economics and profit-driven technology development, we are in a world of hurt. There isn’t going to be a knight on a white charger to lead the way for us, so we’re dealing with shades of grey and trying to figure out what is the least worst outcome that we can aim for.
Jaidee comes close to being a hero, but the White Shirts enforce a brutal regime and his naivety dooms him to personal failure. In many senses Anderson Lake is the central character, but as the story progresses and you find out more about what he’s trying to achieve and who’s he’s trying to achieve it for, I went from a supporter to thinking “how could he?”. None of the characters surrounding Jaidee and Lake are very appealing, and many are repulsive. It turns out that the most moral and genuine person is the windup girl who is, essentially, manufactured.
Does that make it sound like a depressing read? It certainly isn’t. It’s an entertaining read with some fascinating ideas. Bacigalupi has imagined a world where the oil has run out and global warming has run amok, and he’s done a tremendous job of envisaging what weird technologies will crop up and how civilization might develop. While not complimentary – he’s pretty damning about “the west“ and man’s ability to direct technology in a positive way – it’s wonderfully imaginative and makes for a thought-provoking read. It’s also a damned good story with lots of twists and turns and an ending that will keep you guessing right up to the final pages.
This is Bacigalupi’s first full-length novel, which is truly impressive. It is an excellent book and I’d rate it 4.5 stars. It is highly recommended for all lovers of science fiction, anyone who likes to think where our crazy world might end up and, indeed, anyone who likes a good, well-written story.
A multiple award winning book, this novel won the 2010 Nebula Award for best novel published in 2009. The Nebula Award is the best in Science Fiction and Fantasy - chosen by peers from the SFWA –Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. The cover for the Nebula Awards Showcase 2011 links to a review for the nominated short stories, novelettes, winning novella and more.
This book will be included in a variety of challenges – The 2011 Global Reading Challenge – Asia, Dystopia Challenge 2011, 42 Challenge, Mind Voyages, and LGBT Book Challenge (minor character).
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Thanks for reading.