Paolo Bacigalupi‘s debut novel The Windup Girl is a frightening, realistic and brilliant look at the near future of the world. Taking place in Thailand at some point in the future, Bacigalupi paints a picture of a world that is caught between several major problems: climate change has affected the lives of many people around the world. At the same time, a rise in global agricultural corporations has devastated the global ecosystem while global energy resources have been depleted, forcing major changes in the way people live their lives. In a post-oil world, people have adapted, and trade is once again bringing things to people around the world. Corporations have run amok with trying to maintain their profit margins, and released a number of plagues upon the world that devastated the planet’s ecology upon which we all depend. Because of their actions, civilization remains just a single step ahead of the latest mutation of blister rust and other diseases. Amongst all of this, Thailand has thus far weathered the storm – the royal government has maintained a fierce isolationist policy to keep the country from succumbing. As a result, the country has a precious resource that western companies desperately want: a genebank, containing thousands of new strains of crops that could be utilized to combat the ongoing struggle against plagues and hunger world-wide.
The story follows several interlocking storylines and characters, each with their own motivations and demons. Anderson is a ‘calorie man’, a westerner who ostensibly manages a factory that manufactures kink-springs, a renewable power source. Jaidee is a member of the Environmental Ministry, tasked with maintaining a barrier between Thailand and the rest of the world and the dangers that it poses. Emiko is a windup, a genetically engineered woman, designed by the Japanese for servitude and for sex, who was abandoned in Thailand and fears that she will be found by the Environmental Ministry’s White Shirts and disposed of. In addition to these main characters, there are a number of other background characters who are just as complex as their counterparts. Anderson has come to Thailand on the behalf of a major agricorporation that is hoping to gain a foothold in the country in order to obtain rights to the country’s gene banks. While he is ostensibly looking for ways to combat the plagues, Thailand officials believe that the corporations have far more sinister and selfish motivations for the gene banks. While in the country, he has to walk a narrow line to stay in the country, as the Environmental Ministry intends to keep Thailand free.
Captain Jaidee is a leading member of the Environmental Ministry, and throughout the book, it is clear that the country is not necessarily unified in its position to remain away from the rest of the world. Limited trade and imports occur through the actions of the Trade Ministry, which is at frightening odds with the Environmental Ministry, to the point where open bloodshed and crimes are committed on both sides to try and force their position upon the rest of the country, which eventually interrupts into violence, which helps to push forward some of the plans that Anderson and others have laid to gain more traction into the country.
Emiko’s titular character is somewhere between the various storylines. As an artificial biological construct, she is a representation of what is wrong with the outside world in the eyes of a secular nation that believes heavily in the value of one’s soul and rebirth. To the Thai people, she is a soulless being, one who is against nature, and essentially lumped in with the problems of the world. Thus, Emiko, who is unsuited for Thailand’s climate with reduced pores (she overheats easily) and a body structure that makes her stutter while moving, which makes her a literal odd woman out, and thus a target to the Environmental Ministry who see her as a threat to the country’s independence.
Futuristic worlds are a common element in Science Fiction, but it is very rare to have one that is so deeply realized as Bacugalupi’s Thailand, one that takes the current state of existence for the country and extrapolates into the future with hypothetical events. The portrait that he paints of the world is very scary indeed, and the constructed world has reacted accordingly though a number of levels. What makes this novel so interesting is just how everything fits together. There are economic elements that make sense, social, biological and political, all of which are not mere exposition in a prologue in the novel, but where they are an active part of the storyline. This, in a way is one of the best examples of show, don’t tell, a writing exercise that I remember from creative writing courses. What is even better (or sobering, depending on how you look at it), this world makes sense. I can see major corporations putting profit ahead of common sense, and I can see the world going to hell in much more vivid detail now. Furthermore, Bacugalupi posits the power struggle between various departments of government, each with their own agendas and motives, both at odds with one another, which trails up through to the very end of the book.
There’s a strong look at morality and ethics when it comes to bioengineering and the eventual fate of the species, and how our role fits within a society such as what we see in the future. Emiko, a Windup, is shunned, hated, in reaction to what she was, and what she represented: something highly unnatural. By the same token, there are holes in that sort of feeling, as one character confronts towards the end of the novel. One thing that particularly stuck in my mind was how much of evolution is an unnatural, random occurrence, verses how much of it is conscious decisions that any sort of creature makes that better enhances their chances of survival? In this world, survival is predicated on the work of gene rippers and scientists who remain just a couple of steps against plagues – it is noted that the windups are built for a purpose, and that they are immune to most problems in the world because of their unique design. Like the clashes in the Thailand government, there is a larger struggle at stake, survival, with both sides making valid arguments for their continued existence. In a sense, this story is a look at how the human race might choose to survive, and enter a new stage of development. To me, this is a very profound element to the story.
When all is said and done, there is one big theme that goes through and through with this book: survival. Each element of the book deals with this very issue, from the ultimate survival of the human race in a hostile world, to the immediate survival of several characters who are neck deep in political and economic conspiracy to the various branches of government who want to see their vision of the future for their country to survive the coming turmoil.
What truly stands out for this book is the rich detail and fantastic prose. I’ve purposely taken my time with this book so that I could absorb as much as I could. What Bacugalupi puts together is a superior story, one of the best science fiction novels that I have read in a long time, one that takes the best from well thought out characters, plausible economics and science and a complicated story.