Title: The Windup Girl
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Published: Orbit: 2010
Few debut novels come as laden with accolades as The Windup Girl, which won its author both a Hugo and a Nebula award. Does it live up to the hype? There is no doubt that Bacigalupi’s debut novel provides a memorable and intense reading experience. Satisfyingly, this is a novel all about the subject of energy which itself hums and thrums with a vibrancy that can feel both heavy and intoxicating. I picked up the book as part of my ongoing mission to explore the depiction of robots in as many novels as possible. So I was surprised to find that although Emiko – the artificial “windup” of the title – undoubtedly is the catalyst for most of the novel’s key events, her individual story here is somewhat less engaging than the wider experience of Bacigalupi’s world-building. The Windup Girl follows a number of different characters along what is in each case essentially a quest for survival, whether that be the survival of an individual, a company, a city, a nation, an ideology, or even the survival of a species. Yet the real energy source in the book, the power that kept me turning the pages, comes less from character than from setting. The plot may strain under the weight of a few too many coincidences but Bacigalupi’s dystopian world is intricate, memorable and worryingly credible.
The Windup Girl is set in Thailand, during a future period described as “post-contraction”: the oil is all gone, climate change is rampant and starvation is common as harvests are regularly wiped out by ever-evolving genetically-engineered blights. While many cities of the world are abandoned to the rising seas, Bangkok remains, protected – so far, at least – by vast sea walls and an endless system of pumps to keep the water out. These walls are a physical presence; they dominate the Bangkok skyline and some of the novel’s key scenes take place on or near them. But they are also a powerful metaphor for the way Thailand has managed to survive environmental and economic collapse: by retreating inwards, protecting its borders and – most importantly its precious seedbanks. The pumps are coal fired but most other equipment in this sequestered city of desperate survivors are fueled by calories. Many smaller machines are muscle powered (one character uses a foot treadle computer) while larger devices use “kink-springs” energy-storing devices that have power wound in to them, often by animals – “Megadonts” – bio-engineered specifically for the purpose.
Now I’ll admit I’m fairly paranoid about my weight (AddAltModeB would say “completely paranoid”) and probably spend more time than is healthy counting calories. For those of us fortunate enough to be born into lives of relative comfort, I think it’s all too easy to find yourself thinking of calories in a negative way, as some kind of pesky unseen presence, lurking in all the tastiest foods on a specific quest to make you fat. But The Windup Girl takes calorie counting to a whole new level: the foods grown in this ravaged dystopian environment need not only survive the blights, but also to be as calorie efficient as possible. Kink springs are only viable if they can store considerably more energy than the megadonts need to consume in order to wind them. Calories are the fabric of this increasingly fragile society.
What I like best about Bacigalupi’s setting is that it feels so human in its buzzing energy. Sometimes the best and worst aspects of humanity are quite hard to disentangle from each other and that’s something that really comes across in this novel. Catastrophe has an impact on the characters’ psyches here, of course it has. Things are different. There are some moving moments of kindness, regret and introspection and but at the same time Bacigalupi’s world still bustles with very familiar-feeling greed, corruption and fundamentalism. Our current society’s short-sighted brand of endlessly expansive capitalism is shown to have brought the novel’s world to its state of crisis, yet many characters still aspire not just to continue, but to return to that specific brand of environmentally destructive glory. As a cultural critique it’s rather more timely than subtle.
The action follows, intermittently: an American calorie-company man, masquerading as a factory owner while attempting to learn the secrets of Thailand’s unique homegrown produce; various Thai ministry officials, grappling to balance the scales of trade and environmental protection; and a desperate Chinese refugee struggling to rebuild his life in a society that does not accept him. This diverse cast allows for an interestingly wide range of perspectives but it also serves to slow down the overall pace of the narrative. Some of the Hock Seng sections particularly felt like a meandering series of coincidences, near-misses and could have beens, which fits the overall tone of his character brilliantly can make for a rather frustrating read.
And then, of course, there is Emiko, the Rachel of this biopunk Bladerunner. Emiko is artificial: she calls herself “new people”; others – less flatteringly – call her “heechy-keechy” in reference to the jerky stop-start movement that mean windups cannot pass as humans. Once a high-profile Japanese translator and administrator, she now survives in a sordid brothel where she finds herself regularly degraded by clientele and disgusted by the need to serve and please that is an integral part of her programming. The book features some fairly sordid sex scenes. These feel consistent with the novel’s social vision as a whole and are clearly part of the author’s engagement with those big themes that crop up in most robot novels: questions of purpose, the morality of servitude and whether an AI can ever truly overcome its core programming. Bacigalupi spends a lot of time showing how Emiko is objectified but I don’t think he always gets the balance quite right: some uncomfortable passages feel a little too complicit in her objectification to work as a fully convincing critique.
Emiko’s “soul” is said to “war with itself” as she struggles to overcome the servile part of her nature. I’ve a read a lot of authors who depict an artificial intelligence with this kind of inner struggle (Marge Piercy and Ekaterina Sedia are recent examples) and I have to say I didn’t find Bacigalupi quitenas persuasive in this respect: Emiko’s battle feels too conscious, her alterations too sudden. But then this is environmental sci-fi and the vibrantly realised environment of Bangkok, a city holding firm against the tide, is really the main focus. Emiko’s struggle to overcome herself and to find something better than life in a brothel is significant not just in terms of her own development but for the way in which her trajectory crosses over with the book’s other protagonists and sets in motion some momentous city-wide events.
For all its emphasis on high stakes survival, subterfuge and revolution, this novel is really a slow burner. Like the kink springs, there’s a sense of the action winding up, gaining power but only gradually and sometimes with exhausting effort. The Windup Girl reads in places like noir-esque thriller, but at its heart it’s a novel of ideas, a chance to explore a vividly imagined setting and to ponder some powerful questions. Emiko may not be Bacigalupi’s most successful character but she is an essential ingredient in his bio sci-fi melting pot. It is she who serves to crystallise the questions of protection vs evolution, that the novel and its inhabitants grapple with throughout.
We should all be windups by now. It’s easier to build a person impervious to blister rust than to protect an earlier version of the human creature. A generation from now, we could all be well-suited to our new environment.
Such thoughts perfectly sum up the overall tone of this novel: at once hopeless, hopeful and inexorably energetic.
The Windup Girl has it flaws, but if you like your sci-fi dystopian, challenging and intricately realised then it’s absolutely worth a read. But those who prefer to read sunshine and rainbows should probably steer well clear.
Next time on Robo Reads: R reviews Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.