Hector's House (2545734) writes ""Nothing is certain. Nothing is secure", reflects one of the characters in Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel The Windup Girl. In 23rd century Bangkok, life for many hangs by a thread. Oil has run out; rising seas threatens to engulf the city; genetically engineered diseases hover on Thailand’s borders; and the threat of violence smolders as government ministries vie for power. Environmental destruction, climate change and novel plagues have wiped out many of the crop species that humanity depends on: the profits to be made from creating—or stealing—new species are potentially enormous. After a century of collapse and contraction, Western business sees hope for a new wave of globalization; Thailand’s fiercely guarded seed banks may provide just the springboard needed.
In a street market, Anderson Lake—a prospector for a US agribusiness giant—comes across an entirely new fruit. Drawn by the promise that it might lead him to the Thai kingdom's seed banks, he follows a trail that leads him to the backstreet club run by dissipated expat Raleigh. Here he encounters Emiko, the "windup girl" of the title. In the club’s signature live sex show, she is subjected to—quite graphically described—abuse on stage. Genetically engineered in Japan as a "New Person", to be companion, secretary and translator to wealthy patrons, Emiko—a sort of transgenic geisha—has been abandoned in Bangkok by her former patron. Having been trained since infancy to be compliant, and carrying canine DNA that makes life outside of a strict hierarchy unthinkable, Emiko is trapped both by her own nature and by her characteristic tick-tock stuttery movements, hardcoded into her to make her manufactured origins immediately apparent. Genetically "unclean", Emiko daily faces the threat of extermination by the environment police: she takes to the streets only at night, when she can more easily "pass". Lake is fascinated by the exotic Emiko; she in turn is drawn to him, not least as an escape from slavery—even possibly to the fabled north, where New People reputedly live in freedom. Their relationship is an ambiguous one. Lake is not inherently a tender character (he considers the murder of business associates who threaten his plans). Moreover, his status as an unwelcome corporate outsider already puts him at risk; a transgressive liaison with a "windup" endangers him further. Emiko herself (like the Thai authorities) doesn’t feel that she is genuinely human. However, she is fully capable of experiencing pain and loss and—with devastating results—rage.
Bacigalupi's novel is not new, nor is it obscure: published in 2009, it went on to win the highly esteemed Nebula and Hugo awards for science-fiction writing in 2009 and 2010. However, it deserves a place on the pages of slashdot, both for its vision of the future, and how naturally that is embedded in a well-crafted, intelligent action thriller. The book takes a qualified view of our future technological development. Fossil fuel depletion has resulted in a retraction of progress. Now, human and animal labour wind massive crank shafts—a dramatic ramping up of the technology used in hand-cranked radios and windup lanterns. Everything is recycled: even sewage produces methane to light the city's gas lamps. Where technology has leaped forward is in genetic engineering. This has yielded startling benefits: megodonts, hybrid beasts of burden, the result of the splicing of the DNA of elephants with that their massive prehistoric ancestors. It has also imposed dire costs: laboratory-manufactured plagues have swept the planet, Thailand surviving only because of the extreme zealousness of its environmental police.
The setting of an Asian culture, the dystopian image of people crammed into a crumbling city, and the relationship between a cynical, jaded man and vulnerable, artificial woman inevitably recall Bladerunner; however, even if that story provided some inspiration, The Windup Girl doesn’t feel derivative: Emiko is the leading protagonist, not a supporting character. And the book takes off from that point of comparison: it’s not stuck there. Weaving in with the main plot are a number of sub narratives, the book drawing much of its momentum from this crisscrossing. Hock Seng, Lake’s elderly Malaysian Chinese assistant, a refugee from bloody ethnic cleansing, plots his escape from the chaos he feels must ultimately engulf Bangkok. Fiery, ebullient environment police captain Jaidee Rojjanasukchai and his austere female lieutenant Kanya Chirathivat pursue genetic transgressions in an attempt to preserve what is left of Thailand’s ravaged ecosystem. Meanwhile their Environment Ministry vies with the Ministry of Trade, which seeks to open up Thailand to resurgent Western business. Plot and counter plot wind the characters together into a climactic conflict sensed only dimly at the start of the book.
It is perhaps here where the book, not falls down, but stumbles. The complexity of the plot towards the end of the book becomes dense and – for me, on first reading – slowed the book’s momentum. This complexity might, however, also be a strength. For the purposes of the review I came back to the book, which I had read some eight or nine months previously; it bears rereading, and the largely tight structure is rewarding, as is the plot development. The sense of place is very strong—the press of street markets, the stench and press of humanity in the crumbling high-rise apartment buildings, the tropical setting (“[the] night was black and sticky, a jungle filled with the squawks of night birds and the pulse and whir of insect life”), as is the sense of—literally—the daily grind, as men and animals wind the cranks that keep the city powered. And many of the ideas have the power to jolt: the "cheshires", cats with chameleon DNA that recall Lewis Carroll's fictional creation by changing color to melt into their surroundings, the better to exterminate already-threatened bird populations; the Dung Lord, a mafia don who controls the trade in human waste, a vital part of the city’s economy. While not all the characters remain with you afterwards, fittingly, Emiko, the lonely and conflicted protagonist does. Interestingly, hers is also the character for whom the greatest leap of imagination is required—the genetically altered outsider, who makes a journey from abject slavery to a realization of her potential.
Science fiction often suffers because while much attention may have been paid to the technological aspects, the author fails to capture the complexities of the new society or convincingly grasp the characters. Bacigalupi – largely – succeeds because he recognizes that human nature doesn't change over time: elites are only too willing to exercise control with force; the outsiders and those are who different are always vulnerable; human culture, in all its strangeness and mundanity, continues. A key strength of the book is that the subjective portrayal of the characters’ inner lives and thoughts means that we feel them to be inhabiting their own present, exactly as we are. They look back of course, as do we. In their case, wonderingly to a time known as "The Expansion", when Thailand was allegedly the "Land of smiles", quite unlike the misery that has become the lot of its average citizen.
If you’d like to sample Bacigalupi’s writing, some of his short stories are available on his Pump Six website.
Aidan McKeown is an editor and writer living in the Netherlands. He can be contacted at aidanmckeown [at] gmail dot com."