Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

I’d put off reading The Windup
for a while as
I’d seen mixed reviews, but finally a review on
convinced me to give it a go.

Although The Windup Girl is a science fiction book, I feel it’s doing it a
disservice to view it solely as one. If books like
1984 can be viewed as
mainstream literature then I think The Windup Girl deserves it too - although
there are clear science fiction themes the book is really about what it is to
be human and how good humans are at objectifying others and so justifying all
manner of mistreatment.

The central character of the story, Emiko, The Windup Girl, is a genetically
engineered “New Person” manufactured in Japan as a secretary, sexual
companion, and slave. New People are disease resistant, have better hearing
and eyesight than normal humans, and think and move extremely quickly when
required. However, they are also sterile, genetically engineered to be
obedient even against their will. Bred for use by the rich Japanese (who live
in air-conditioned environments), they have smooth skin with fewer pores even
though that means they sweat less efficiently and can die of heatstroke in the
tropics. In order not to mistake them for natural humans their bodies move
with a jerky movement - hence the nickname “windups.”

The story takes place in Krung Thep (The Thai name for Bangkok) in a time
after oil has run out and genetically engineered plagues have ravaged the
planet. After many decades of insularism, international trade via dirigibles
and sailing clippers has restarted. Due to the disasters caused by genetic
engineering it and the animals and plants produced by it are viewed with deep
suspicion by Thais even though daily life is now dependent on genetically
engineered foodstuffs and animals such as the megodonts (genetically
engineered elephants) which provide much of the motive power in industry. The
Thai environmental ministry (AKA “white shirts”) are charged with preventing
pollution and genetic contamination but in fact are so corrupt as to be
useless and are basically a government sponsored protection racket.

One of the ironies of the book is that although the Japanese created the New
People and rely on them in their society they consider them just as much
objects as the Thai who hate them. Emiko is abandoned in Krung Thep when her
Japanese master decides that it is not worth the cost of bringing her back to
Japan and abandons her. Without the protection of the Japanese she is classed
as an illegal import and is in constant danger of being found and killed by
white shirts and general members of the population. She falls into the
clutches of Raleigh, a sadistic (or at best uncaring) bar/brothel owner, who
uses her in a degrading live sex show and pays the bribes that cause the white
shirts to turn a blind eye to her existence.

Apart from Emiko and Raleigh, we have Anderson Lake an amoral executive for
one of the hated genetic engineering multinationals posing as an entrepreneur,
Jaidee Rojjanasukchai and Kanya Chirathivat Thai white shirts and Hock Seng, a
Chinese refugee from ethnic cleansing in Malaya. The greatness of The Windup
Girl is the way in which these, and a host of less central characters, are
rendered as people with their own fears and motivations. None of the main
characters are truly evil but their scheming for their own advancement without
thought of the cost to others has dramatic consequences which play out to
devastating effect.

However it is the story of Emiko in her journey from genetically engineered
victim to master of her own destiny that is the central thread of the story.

Although the characterisation is masterful, as others have
, the idea of a world in which muscle power is the main motive
force is less convincing. In my opinion this does not detract too much from
the story though since it is so character focussed.

To my mind one of the worst traits in humans is the way we can conceive a
being which is obviously sentient and intelligent as only an object which
deserves to be maltreated - in the book we see this in the way Emiko and her
kind are treated by almost everybody around them.

I would definitely recommend this book even if the world-building is sometimes
less than convincing the characterisation and the story they weave makes it
all worthwhile.

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