The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

From the title and the use of spring technology, it’s clear to me why people would think of The Windup Girl as a Steampunk novel. However, I found this fascinating look at a dark future falling more into the cyberpunk side of the “punk” categories, not because of advanced technology so much as the focus on corporate entities and genetic manipulation.

The tale is set in a post-apocalyptic world where climate changes have wiped out much of civilization and that which remains is held hostage by companies that produce strains of agricultural products with temporary immunity to various rots and diseases that threaten the world’s food supply. However, instead of placing us in the Western world as is common for this type of novel, the story takes place in Thailand, a country holding the line against both the rising ocean through a sea wall with extensive pumps, and the interests of the calorie companies in laying claim to all viable food sources.

The cast is broad, though formed mostly of foreigners, and includes an undercover calorie man who is trying to get access to Thailand’s hidden seed bank of native, uncontrolled, plants; a Chinese immigrant who lost everything to revolution and seeks to better himself; the windup girl, a genetically constructed, enhanced servant abandoned to the sex trade when by law she should have been destroyed; and first one, then another of the Environment Ministry which seeks to keep out foreign contamination in a country that runs on bribes and self-interest.

This is no easy read, no light novel to brush over in the hopes of some quick entertainment. Windup Girl is a complex look at greed and consequences, at loyalty, at discovering what’s important, and at both corruption and nationalism to the point of destruction.

The characters don’t try to win your sympathy. They carry on as they mean to with little thought to how it might appear. All are manipulative in some sense; some are abused while others perpetuate that abuse. There are times when, as I read, I was drawn in by the fascination of just how ugly people can be when focused on a goal even to the exclusion of their own preservation. Nothing else matters, no risk too high nor cost too much. This does have consequences for the reader, not because the novel goes too far but more because even the darkest of human behaviors modeled here do not exceed plausibility.

Things will happen to characters, and be done by characters, that go well beyond repugnant. The representation of humanity is rarely at its best, making for hard reading at times. Still, I think it’s good to look in the mirror at the crack of dawn and see the shadows that make up humanity. Some may protest that the novel glorifies such things by having the protagonists act in this way. I disagree. No one is a hero in this novel. No one models behavior that the novel encourages the reader to adopt. Instead, it offers a glimpse into what people harbor within them and the circumstances where those shadows gain dominance.

There’s a lot to say about Windup Girl, most of which requires spoilers and the length of an academic paper or two, so not worth going into here. The essence of it is that you need to dive into this novel with the understanding that it’ll make you think. I can see literature classes having a heyday with Windup Girl, exploring the various aspects from a cultural, social, political, and/or psychological angle. There’s a lot of fodder to chew on.

What it is not, however, is a work of mundane science fiction. The futuristic science exercises a good bit of handwavium to allow for details that help the sense of a world changed, whether we’re talking factories powered by genetic constructs based on elephants or spring guns that shoot spinning discs instead of projectiles. This is a case of not looking behind the curtain, of accepting a world much different from ours, crafted solely to support the story it is designed to tell. If you allow yourself to get hung up on the “accuracy” of these aspects, you’ll miss out on the point of the book. I wouldn’t want to live in this future, and maybe if more people take a close look at what the novel is detailing, just maybe we won’t ever have to.

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