Not surprisingly, my quest to read all Hugo Award nominated novels has brought to my attention many extraordinary stories. One such story – which tied for Best Novel Hugo in 2010 with China Miéville’s The City & the City – is Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. In it, author Bacigalupi has spun a tale of a near-future Earth that has been ravaged not by war, but by famine, loss and greed and he challenges us to imagine a world where the basest of human nature threatens to call the shots. The most frightening thing of all, however, is how easy it is to envision this future coming to pass, for it feels as if it is not so far from where we are now, especially with all the controversy surrounding corporate farming policies and distrust of agriculture giants such as Monsanto.
The setting takes place almost exclusively in Bangkok, Thailand, known as the City of a Divine Beings. There is little of the divine here, however; it is an impoverished city in a burned out country, voluntarily cut off from the rest of the world and policed by the Trade Ministry, haunted by the Environment Ministry. Run on human and genetically altered animal labor, it is a place where bribes are not only commonplace but expected, and honesty is a weakness. It is also a fiercely independent land, loyal to ancient gods and traditions, superstitious and wary, determined to survive in a dog-eat-dog struggle.
It’s not just Thailand that has become an island nation – the entire world has retreated into isolationism, brought about by environmental disasters, industry collapse, and sweeping famines instigated by crop manipulation on a genetic level by multi-national industry giants such as AgriGen and UTex. Safeguards removed in the name of profit and civilizations eradicated in the flippant play for industrial power has destroyed not only nations (developed and Third World alike), but also any trust that the surviving nations may have previously harbored.
European foreigners in Bangkok are not trusted, for good reason. It is clear that they are there to exploit, and they are only tolerated because they bring in important capital and run factories that employ the Thai masses. These workers and factories are kept in brutal check by the “White Shirts”, the uniformed members of the Environment Ministry, who patrol the streets, docks and landing pads of the city with the ruthlessness of thugs and bullies. Also barely tolerated are the “yellow cards” – ethnic Chinese refugees from Malaysia and elsewhere, who have fled their ruined countries and now fill positions of menial labor as a simpering and obsequious work force. Yet in this simmering, sweltering city, there is money to be made and power plays to be manipulated by foreigners and natives alike.
Into this steaming mix we are introduced to Anderson Lake, an American national who is a covert employee of the mega-corporation known as AgriGen. Posturing as a factory operator, he is secretly attempting to find evidence of the fabled Thai seedbank that allows native generippers to stay one step ahead of the blights and mutant diseases that affect most of the globe – afflictions that his own company has had a hand in unleashing. Any new and uncontaminated genetic material is extremely valuable, and Anderson Lake is determined to acquire the rights to this potential goldmine harbored in the festering city and its parochial government.
The “windup girl” of the title is Emiko, one of “race” of genetically spliced, human organic automatons, grown in a test tube and bred and developed by the Japanese to be obedient and efficient. Despised by almost all other cultures as soul-less monstrosities, the windups (or as they call themselves, “New People”) are characterized by a herky-jerky motion when they move, but they have independent minds and can muse and wonder about their condition and their place in society, even as their genetic engineering render them virtually totally obedient – and therefore, easily exploited and just as easily discarded.
Emiko was created as an assistant for the wealthy and elite. She is intelligent, beautiful, efficient and subservient. The property of a wealthy Japanese businessman on assignment to Thailand, she was cast away (“properly disposed of”) after it became inconvenient to retain her, and she ends up in a tawdry Bangkok brothel where her obedience, and the lack of concern for her as a sentient creature, combine to allow her to be publically displayed as a sexually humiliated deviant for those willing and able to pay for the show.
Anderson Lake is intrigued professionally by Emiko as a fabricated creature, and personally by her beauty and fragile demeanor. As a Midwesterner, Anderson is not as judgmental of her origin as the native Thais are, and he ends up giving her clandestine harbor, in that it does not jeopardize his precarious standing in Thai business society – or his hidden mission. That this tenuous and superficial relationship should allow Emiko to unwittingly spark a revolution and change the very fabric of Thai society – perhaps even the world – is an unexpected twist in a story that seems to always be smoldering at the point of sudden combustion.
Bacigalupi’s writing is rich yet concise. He allows actions to provide much of his explication, and his details are sharp, drawing a very clear picture of his vision of this future world. Characters are complex and yet have very simple motivations. And he has many incredibly realized and marvelous characters, few of which are truly heroic or devastatingly evil – you don’t know whether to care if many of them live or die, or to hope they do. Redemption for Bacigalupi’s characters – when there is any – come in drips and dabs, but that is perhaps what gives such small glimpses of humanity so much impact.
Then there are the visceral descriptions of everyday life and death in this City of Divine Beings. Whether in hovels or huts, palaces or brothels, life in this future Bangkok is brutal and unforgiving. Poor working conditions, government nonchalance, a corrupt militia, illegal dealings and general squalor more often bring meaningless death than mercy or salvation. Yet there is a beauty to be found in the folds of this dirty and bloodied urban fabric, if even in the dance between existence and the shadows, the disease and the dirt.
The ending of The Windup Girl satisfies much of the story arc but is not absolute, leaving room for a sequel or even series to come later. I would be satisfied to have this terrifying version of the future contained in a single volume, but should Bacigalupi decide to expand on what he has already brought forth, then I will feel absolutely compelled to be reeled back in – despite the squalor, corruption, and greed of this future, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.