Book Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
In this steampunk vision of a possible dystopian future, carbon usage and genetic engineering caused the world to nearly collapse. Whole nations have been lost to starvation due to exorbitant prices charged by the genetic engineering calorie companies and also due to the rising seas from global warming caused by carbon usage. Domestic cats have been wiped out by cheshires–genetically engineered cats that can appear and disappear, just like the cat in Alice in Wonderland. Thailand, through strict military enforcement of calorie and carbon consumption, has managed to hold back both the sea with a sea wall and starvation. The Thai work diligently to rid their nation of windups–genetically engineered living creatures. As Buddhists, they believe these windups have no souls. Within this world we see glimpses of five very different lives. There’s Anderson, a foreigner from Detroit who claims to be running a factory but is actually a calorie company spy. His manager, Hock Seng, is a survivor of the Malaysian civil war where Muslim fundamentalists attempted to kill all the Chinese immigrants. Jaidee and Kanya work for the Environment Ministry, also known as white shirts. They are the military enforcers of all the environmental laws, but they are struggling against the Trade Ministry that wants to open their borders back up to foreign trade. Finally, there’s Emiko. She is a Japanese windup girl. The Japanese created windups due to a severe lack of young people to care for the old. She came over both as a secretary and lover of her owner who had to do business in Thailand, but he then decided it would be cheaper to leave her behind than to take her on the return trip. She now is a spectacle in sex shows in the ghetto of Krung Thep. These lives slowly intertwine, and through them, Bacigalupi shows how easily civil war can erupt.
I fully admit that this book was out of my comfort zone. I don’t normally read books on political intrigue and intertwining lives. I tend to stick to ones that talk about one individual person, and that’s what I was expecting from a book called The Windup Girl. That’s why I took the time to write a detailed summary, so you all would have a clearer picture of what this book is about than I did. This is another one of those books that I almost gave up on early in. Bacigalupi doesn’t take the time to truly set up the world. Things have names and are briefly or not at all described, so you have to fill in the gaps yourself. I think if I hadn’t read steampunk before, I would have been at a loss. For instance, he never explains exactly what a dirigible is, although we know they are sky ships. It is not until the end of the book when one gets blown up and a character refers to it as a creature that it becomes apparent that they are living creatures used as sky ships. This is just one example of many ways in which the world building is sloppy. It takes until solidly halfway through the book for a clear picture of Krung Thep to emerge. Additionally, this is one of those books that tosses around non-English words where English ones would entirely suffice. For example, all of the foreigners are called farang, not foreigners. It makes sense to use a Thai word where there is no English equivalent, but it’s just superfluous to toss them around when there is one. Technically these characters are supposedly speaking entirely in Thai. We know that. Bacigalupi doesn’t need to throw Thai words in periodically just to remind us. Still, though, I kept reading beyond the first couple of chapters, mainly because I bought the book on my Kindle app, and I don’t tend to waste money. In the end, I’m glad I kept reading.
Although the setting and world building is rough, the story itself is quite interesting. Many perspectives are offered on these issues that potentially could become issues in real life. What are the rights and roles of genetically engineered living beings? Is nature the way it’s always been better or genetic engineering the next step in evolution? One of the pro-genetic engineering characters states:
We are nature. Our every tinkering is nature, our every biological striving. We are what we are, and the world is ours. We are its gods. Your only difficulty is your unwillingness to unleash your potential fully upon it. (Location 6347-6350)
It is an interesting question. Will our next phase of evolution happen in the traditional manner, or is the next phase actually us using our brains to improve?
The Buddhist concepts sprinkled throughout the text are also quite enjoyable. The characters struggle to maintain their belief in karma and reincarnation in spite of the issues of windups. It clearly depicts how religion must struggle to adapt to change. Additionally, the concepts of fate and karma and how much one can actually do to improve one’s lot in life are explored in an excellent manner through multiple characters. It reminded me a lot of how the Dark Tower series explores the similar idea of ka (fate). One sentence that really struck me on this theme was:
He wonders if his karma is so broken that he cannot every truly hope to succeed. (Location 8388-8393)
I was just discussing a similar concept with a friend the other day, so it really struck me to see it in print.
Additionally, the ending truly surprised me, even though it’s evident throughout most of the book that a civil war is coming. I always enjoy it when a book manages to surprise me, and this one definitely did.
Overall, although Bacigalupi struggles with world building, his intertwined characters and themes are thought-provoking to read. I’m glad I went out of my comfort zone to read this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys the themes of fate, evolution, nature, karma, or political intrigue.
3.5 out of 5 stars