The Windup Girl, by Paulo Bacigalupi

In this Hugo Award winning novel, author Paulo Bacigalupi has spun a tale of a near-future Earth that has been ravaged not by war, but by famine, where the basest of human nature threatens to call the shots. The most frightening thing, however, is how plausible it seems.

The setting takes place almost exclusively in Bangkok, Thailand, now known as the City of a Divine Beings, despite there being little of the divine there. It is an impoverished city in a burned out country, voluntarily cut off from the rest of the world, policed by the Trade Ministry and haunted by the Environment Ministry, where bribes are expected, and honesty is a weakness. It is also a fiercely independent land, loyal to ancient gods and superstitions, determined to survive in a dog-eat-dog worldly struggle.

For 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. Safeguards removed in the name of profit have destroyed entire nations – third world and developed alike.

European foreigners in Bangkok are not trusted, but they are tolerated because their bosses run factories that employ the Thai masses. These workers are kept in brutal check by the “White Shirts”, the uniformed members of the Environment Ministry, who patrol with the ruthlessness of thugs and bullies. Yet in this simmering, sweltering city, there is money to be made and power 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 the fabled Thai seedbank that allows native generippers to stay one step ahead of the blights and mutant diseases that have affected most of the globe – afflictions that his own company has had a hand in unleashing. Any uncontaminated genetic material is extremely valuable, and Anderson Lake is determined to acquire the rights to this potential goldmine.

The “windup girl” of the title is Emiko, one of a “race” of genetically spliced, human automatons, grown in a test tube, developed by the Japanese to be obedient and efficient. Despised by almost all other cultures as soul-less monstrosities, the windups (who move with a herky-jerky motion) nevertheless have independent minds and can muse and wonder about their condition and their place in society, even as their genetic engineering renders them totally obedient – and therefore, easily exploited and easily discarded.

Emiko was created as an assistant for a wealthy Japanese businessman on assignment to Thailand. Although she is intelligent, beautiful, efficient and subservient, she was cast away (“properly disposed of”) after it became inconvenient to retain her. She ends up in a tawdry Bangkok brothel where her obedience and non-existent social status 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, he is not as judgmental of her origin as native Thais are, and he ends up giving her clandestine harbor. That this tenuous 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 there are many of these incredibly realized characters, few of which are either truly heroic or devastatingly evil. Redemption for Bacigalupi’s players – when there is any – comes in drips and drabs, but that is exactly what gives those 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, 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.

An incredible book – one of my all time favorites – not to be missed.

—Sharon Browning

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