The Windup Girl

by Paolo Bacigalupi

Cover image

Publisher: Night Shade
Copyright: 2009
Printing: 2010
ISBN: 1-59780-158-5
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 359

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Paolo Bacigalupi is a rising star in the SF field on the basis of his short fiction, which garnered Hugo and Nebula nominations starting in 2005 with "The People of Sand and Slag" and a Theodore Sturgeon award in 2006 for "The Calorie Man". While he's written a variety of short stories, those that I've read, which also include "Pop Squad", "Yellow Card Man", "The Tamarisk Hunter", and "Pump Six" (also the title of a short story collection) have all shared an image of a dire future. Environmental, technological, or social collapse or all three seem to be his preferred subject material. He's an undeniably talented writer with a knack for effective description and some fascinating (if fantastic) world building, but I usually finish one of his stories wanting to slit my wrists.

I've been contemplating this, his first novel, with profoundly mixed feelings. Set in the same universe of runaway bioengineering and environmental collapse as "The Calorie Man" and "Yellow Card Man," it had prospects of being the same depressing portrait at much greater length. It's also an indirect follow-up to "Yellow Card Man," which is my least favorite of Bacigalupi's short fiction that I've read. Both of those stories had an interesting world (more on that in a moment), but neither of them had much in the way of a plot. They felt at times more like scene descriptions than stories, and I wasn't sure what that would mean for a novel.

I can happily report that The Windup Girl doesn't have those problems. Indeed, I think Bacigalupi may be more effective at novel length, since world-building and scene-setting is one of his strengths and the additional pages give him more room to elaborate. Unlike some short story writers, he handles the transition to multiple viewpoints extremely well. The Windup Girl is full of dynamic characters and well-interwoven plots, with a good novel climax, plenty of unexpected twists, and a solid grasp of rising action and dramatic tension throughout. For a first novel, this is surprisingly mature and polished work.

He also improves on the hopeless despair of both "The Calorie Man" and "Yellow Card Man," writing a book that manages almost a happy ending. If you've not read his short fiction, let me assure you that's a surprising leap. The grim universe is still here, and this book is full of nasty things happening to desperate people, but finally the characters get a bit of agency. He also has an opportunity to tell the story of this world in the middle of a prolonged apocalypse from a perspective that's more native to what the world is becoming, which provides that sense of alienation and perspective shift that is so often the core of the SF reading experience. The short stories stopped at showing how much his future world sucks for humans. The Windup Girl adds that invaluable SF "but" of future adaptation.

This is all sounding quite positive, and indeed The Windup Girl has just garnered three major genre awards and a raft of positive critical attention. But there are also problems, and one of them is a particularly difficult and tricky one.

I'll start on more mundane ground. This novel and the two previous short stories are set after the collapse of oil, the onset of runaway global warming, and more directly affecting the plot of all three, the onset of runaway damage from bioengineering. The cycle of competition between bioengineered pest-resistant crops and evolving bacteria, fungi, and other crop pests and human diseases has been kicked into insane overdrive by the release of intentional bioengineered diseases as weapons in fights between agribusiness corporations. The result has been a collapse of human food supplies and widespread plagues, and the typical human experience is now desperate near-starvation amidst jealously guarded patented crops and constant scientific effort to stay ahead of the next mutated plague.

So far, so good, as apocalyptic collapse of civilizations go. It's all vaguely believably scary in the sense of everything negative that science warns about hitting at once, turned up to eleven. However, Bacigalupi uses this background as an excuse to write what's essentially steampunk technology with a side dose of bioengineering, and this choice is idiosyncratic to say the least.

The two hallmarks of Bacigalupi's world are bioengineered animals consuming fodder as the primary source of energy in a world of starving people (hence the obsession with calories as the measure of energy), and springs as the mechanism for storing and transporting that energy. This all makes some symbolic sense, particularly if one is looking for a nasty image to crystallize concerns about the business practices of agricultural conglomerates. It makes absolutely no scientific sense. The typical SF reader will particularly notice Bacigalupi's magic springs, which store mechanical energy in ways and at a density that makes them as much of a leap as any far-future handwavium. They're also used for just about everything that can't be powered by either giant elephants or human labor, including places where they make no sense, like guns. (The loss of oil is going to affect a lot of things. Gunpowder isn't one of them.) But the use of animals eating grain and then winding giant springs as one's primary way of generating energy is just as unbelievable as soon as you think about it for more than a minute.

That said, if you successfully suspend disbelief, it makes for some great images, which to me is one of the essential steampunk experiences. Night Shade did a wonderful job with the cover of the copy I read, featuring an elephant trundling down a market street with skyscrapers in the background. The springs do have some of that clockwork mechanical appeal of steampunk technology. I suspended disbelief and quite enjoyed the world background, but it's worth a warning because the book otherwise aims for the realistic-doom end of future extrapolation. The cognitive dissonance of that has apparently knocked a few people out of the story.

That's one potential issue. The other is harder to talk about, but I think much more important to talk about, and is the primary objection I've seen circulating about this book; namely, it's a story set entirely in Asia (namely Thailand), written by a white guy from Colorado. And in places it shows.

I don't think it shows in trivial or obvious ways. Bacigalupi has clearly done research and is clearly not intending to show western involvement in the region in a positive light. It's a core part of his world background that the world's food supply has been screwed up by specifically US agricultural companies, and the primary white character in this book (one of the protagonists) is a rather unethical operative for one of those companies. The Windup Girl is, in many ways, an anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist book. But it's anti-imperialist within a stock western mode, showing an Asian country trying to hold its ground against western business by partly closing the country and preserving eastern traditions that are sometimes portrayed in an orientalist way. The best examples that come to mind are spoilers, so I'll just say that, for a book set entirely in Thailand and focused around a Thai national crisis, and in which only one of five viewpoint characters is American or European, it ends up revolving around the actions and beliefs of white westerners to a remarkable degree.

And then there's Emiko, the title character. I should say up-front that I found her very compelling and enjoyable as a character, particularly in the second half of the book. She goes through a dark take on a classic SF coming of age story and provides much of that vital second perspective on Bacigalupi's world that I mentioned earlier. But she's also, essentially, a genetically engineered geisha, one of a whole race of such girls created by a highly technological Japanese society that's portrayed (in the small amount that it enters the story) almost entirely in stereotypes of Japanese businessmen and geisha. She also reaches that coming of age story by way of being repeatedly raped and abused for entertainment and then having her escape begin by drawing the attention of a white westerner.

Let me be very clear: all of this doesn't necessarily make this a bad book in my eyes. I don't believe Bacigalupi is trying to reinforce these stereotypes or the western lens through which this story is told. In many places, I think he's attempting the exact opposite, probably with the best of intentions. But regardless of intentions, and however much Bacigalupi has travelled in Asia (which I believe is significantly), I think the book has a particular cast and presentation which can reinforce those stereotypes and skewed western perception of Asia. I'm discussing this at some length precisely because I don't think it obviously hurts the story. Unless one is attuned to this class of problems, either by careful attention or by being directly affected by them, this can easily go unnoticed. It largely did for me on first reading, and it was only after thinking back through the book that parts of it started bothering me. And it's the unnoticed and subtle reinforcement of stereotypes that I find the most problematic as a reader. When it's obvious, I know how to either adjust or decide to stop reading, but when it's subtle and unintentional, I can pick up skewed ideas without realizing it.

This is a well-written, well-plotted book that takes a very dark world and some rather nasty events and turns them into a compelling, engrossing story. If you can suspend disbelief for some steampunk-style technology, it has some great visuals and set pieces. Bacigalupi also pulls off the difficult feat of providing a set of deeply and individually flawed characters, including some near-villains, as viewpoint characters and protagonists and keeping me interested in the actions and reactions of all of them throughout the book. No one here is quite a villain, no one here is quite a hero, and Bacigalupi does not follow most of the expected plot paths. I'm sure that's much of why it's getting so much critical acclaim. I found it much more satisfying and enjoyable than his short stories set in the same universe, and I think it's the best writing that he's done yet.

This is also a book that continues a recent trend of white western authors writing books set in non-western countries and deeply probing local culture and extrapolating a local future, and within that trend, I think it falls prey to some unfortunate stereotypes and stock narrative structures in ways that have increasingly bothered me since I finished the book. I personally certainly know less about the area than Bacigalupi does, but it's a book that I don't feel comfortable reading without seeking out reactions from people who are native to the region and listening seriously to their feelings about it. (And, to give him credit, Bacigalupi explicitly says in an afterword that this book should not be taken as representative of modern Thailand and provides a recommended reading list.)

I'm therefore feeling profoundly conflicted on whether or how to recommend this book. I enjoyed it as a reading experience, but I wouldn't have wanted to read it uncritically. I think it's still much too dark for many people's reading preferences, but some people will absolutely love it. Other people will hate it. I found myself wishing that Bacigalupi had stuck with the midwest setting of "The Calorie Man," since I think he could have written as good and vivid of a book while avoiding the pitfalls of an American writing about southeast Asia, but that also wouldn't have been as daring and risky of a book.

I think the best advice I can offer is to avoid if you don't want to read about fairly graphic rape and a rather desperate and dire world of environmental collapse, but otherwise give it a cautious try with an awareness of the surrounding context (I can recommend this review at Silver Goggles). Particularly if you have previously read and liked any of Bacigalupi's short fiction.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-07-30

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