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The International Writers Magazine: Review Archives

The Windup Girl (Joint winner of the Hugo Award 2010)
Paolo Bacigalupi
Nightshade Books
ISBN 978-1-59780-158-4

Sam North review

The Windup Girl was sent to me by my pal Kit, when in the USA. She sensed I’d be excited by this vision of the future – a biogenetic noir thriller. She was right.


I’m old enough to remember the excitement of seeing Bladerunner in the cinema the first week it was out and thinking that here at last someone was thinking hard about the future – based on an ever prescient Philip K Dick original short story written in the early sixties.  Ridley Scott had been filming in Hong Kong before he made the movie and had a glimpse of the future of mankind and brought that experience to the look and feel of the movie.

As we rapidly approach 8 Billion humans living in this world The Windup Girl looks ahead to what kind of situation we will be living in post-oil and genetic manipulation of all that we eat or drink.  By coincidence all the UK newspapers this week are screaming about cloned meat being on sale in the UK and last July the EU allowed six variants of genetic-modified grain to be grown in Europe, so this novel touches a raw nerve talking as it does about nutrition-free food.  The 4.9 million barrels of oil that spilled into the Gulf in 2011 is also relevant.  What the hell are we doing to the environment and when will it bite back?  The Windup Girl assumes everything will crash and there will be a huge contraction of population and available power, meaning energy and calories will be rationed.  Sensibly Paolo Bacigalupi doesn’t deal with the crash.  He looks forward to the re-establishment of humanity (the expansion) after this cataclysm and his book is centred on Thailand where all the action takes place.

Thailand has stood alone in the world against big corporations and the population thrives whilst most of the world has starved as the oil dependent crops died.  Enter this world with Anderson, white-bread American, running a factory that is developing a new variant on kick-springs (used to power almost anything in the absence of fossil fuels).   Hock Seng is his yellow-card factory manager. A Chinese illegal who lives in terror of being found and killed by the White Shirts, a kind of environmental Gestapo who shake down everyone and get up the noses of Trade – the other political faction in Thailand that wants to break down the barriers and let the big American or Japanese corporations in.  (Thailand is divided today between factions and standing in the middle stands the Royals – who unify the country, so it is no stretch to believe this scenario.)

The Windup Girl is a New Person.  Genetically modified human, beautiful with incredible skin, designed for an air-conditioned Japan, not a steamy sweaty Thailand.  She has been stranded by her owner who didn’t value her enough to take her back to Japan.  Windups are treated with respect in Japan and are trained to do remarkable things, but in Thailand they are hated and used as weird sex objects or mulched with the rest of the trash for the methane tanks.  Emiko, the Windup girl is tortured and raped everynight on stage for all to see – and is now owned by Raleigh- a white exotic bar owner.  She is nothing and wants to die.  She is ready to serve and can’t help but please others, in addition she is designed to walk like a geisha and this gives her away every time and people mock her odd way of moving.

Anderson meets her and despite himself falls for her (but does not stop her nightly humiliation on stage – if only because it would cost too much to buy her out from Raleigh).  He tells her that there is a place for Windups, up North in the deserted area and she becomes obsessed with escape.

But why is Anderson here in Bangkok, which is now hidden behind a massive sea wall – one of the last surviving big cities on the world coastlines thanks to global warming.  Why is Anderson buying exotic fruit?  Why does he keep asking about gene-rippers and showing an interest in organic matters when he is supposed to be running a kick-spring factory.  Then there's the scheming Carlyle who owns airships which bring in illegal imports. He wants to see a change of regime and thinks he reads which way the wind is blowing and wants Anderson to come in with him.

Why does Captain Jaidee take pleasure in shaking down Government customs officers?  In a world where corruption is endemic, to have a Captain of the White Shirts be incorruptible is a thorn in the side of trade.  He cannot last.  His second in command worships him but she too hides a terrible secret.

This is a vision of a very possible and frightening future, beautifully crafted by someone who has thought long and hard about the consequences of the way we live now and where it will lead us.  That he goes so far forward to think about a world ravaged by new made-man viruses that wipe out billions is illuminating.  This is the world of unintended consequences as we attempt to feed the seven billion plus.  To set the novel in Thailand brings a sharp focus on humanity and survival in an incredibly hostile city, but allows for fresh thinking and the complexities of environmental politics in a world where geneticists have the ability to bring back pre-historic Megodonts as brute labour in a world short of oil power.  That the rich drive diesel cars derived from coal (illegal but permits can be bought) shows that nothing will ever change. 

The countries either side of Thailand are devastated.  China has suffered a monumental population crash, but this is all background history.  We are in the future present now where food is the greatest weapon.

Thailand is the big prize, has one of the last seed banks, a place populated with killer Cheshire cats (a genetic toy that escaped into the world and bred out all the domestic cats.)  The tall towers built in our time are mostly empty because there is no power to drive the lifts so high.  Squatters inhabit many but they stink of excrement.  To be an illegal in this Thailand is to live each day in terror of being found out.

To read The Windup Girl is to be given a fantastic vision of the future that seems at once to be terrifyingly true and one is immediately gripped.  Deserving winner for the Hugo Award, it deserves more widespread recognition.  Science-fiction with real science and relevance.  We don’t need an apocalypse to end the world; just a genetically modified corn dog will do it just as efficiently. *Wind Up Girl is still available in the UK and is as relevant as the year it was published in 2010.

© Sam North 2021 – author of the pandemic novel Another Place To Die: Endtime Chronicles

see also Shipbreaker by Paulo Bacigalupi

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