Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Nightshade Books
Hardcover, 359 pages
The Windup Girl is a dystopian biopunk novel that occurs in the city of Bangkok. Vehicles run on fossil fuels are scarce and most food and many animals have been genetically altered. Anderson Lake is a farang businessman for a calorie company and searches the streets of Bangkok for food that is resistant to disease. His assistant, Hock Seng, is a Yellow Card that helps Anderson run the factory. The two work hard to keep the factory ahead of the pace of diseases like cibiscosis and blister rust that ruins foodstuffs and causes famine and death. When Anderson meets a windup girl named Emiko his life changes. Windups are viewed as less than human in Thailand, and Emiko is discarded by her owner and works at a club where she is abused. Torn between his obligation to serve his company and his desire to take care of Emiko, Anderson inadvertently sets events in motion that have serious implications.
The Windup Girl was given the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel at AussieCon in Melbourne about a month ago. This excited me because I have been looking forward to reading The Windup Girl all year long. I have never read anything by Bacigalupi before, but the book has gotten so much attention and the cover of the book was so appealing that when I finally got a copy, I couldn’t wait to crack open the pages and read the book. What I found was a book that had a thoughtful social commentary on the dangers of GMO foods, corporate control of our food system, and raised ethical questions of genetic engineering. For being a fairly short book at 359 pages, the world building was amazing. There were times that Bacigalupi’s description of the heat in Thailand made me feel like I needed to turn my ceiling fan on and there were times when I could feel the humidity of the Bangkok air. The setting was vibrant but also full of turmoil.
The world building was so well done that the plot didn’t really begin to take shape until midway through the book. I knew the basics of the plot with Anderson searching for the fruit the Thais called gnaw, but the story with Hock Seng, the Environment Ministry white shirts, and Emiko didn’t come together for me until about 150-200 pages in. I have to admit that I struggled some through the first half of the book but once I hit the midway point of the book, I really started enjoying it. The politics of the Environment Ministry, the calorie companies, and the Trade Ministry were complex and felt like it could truly be within the realm of possibility. Food is such a commodity in our society now, that a dystopian vision of GMO foods is something that was very interesting to read about.
The major issue that I had with the book was what Stephanie from Read in a Single Sitting characterizes as a “plate glass" style of writing. For me, the writing was choppy and disconnected from the story. There were times the flow was there but other times the sentences were so short that I felt like I was at a slam poetry performance. Mr. Bacigalupi may have intended this for the novel because society is disconnected in it and there is a constant sense of chaos throughout, but because of this, I admit that I had difficulty getting immersed in the novel. However, I am glad that I persevered and continued reading because the ideas in it are worthy of a read and the world itself is one that is likely to stay in my mind for years to come. While talking to my husband at dinner tonight, I compared this novel to The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. That was also a book I struggled through at times, but over time, it was one that really grew on me. I have a feeling The Windup Girl will be much like The Diamond Age in that I think it’s a book that months down the road I will still be digesting. I would recommend this book to people that enjoy dystopian literature that has a striking social commentary, especially with regards to corporations and how they influence the industrial food system, and it challenges readers to contemplate what constitutes our humanity in reference to biological systems.
Note of Interest
Paolo Bacigalupi wrote two short stories related to The Windup Girl in Pump Six and Other Stories. They are called Yellow Card Man and The Calorie Man.
*Notice of Disclosure: I received The Windup Girl for review from Nightshade Books.
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