Novel Review: The Windup Girl

Peak oil is long past, the Age of Expansion has ended, bioengineering has imperiled the food supply, and revolution moils in Thailand.

Paolo Bacigalupi established himself as a writer to watch with his short fiction, and his first novel, a sprawling political tale set in a steam-biopunk future, has drawn considerable attention, a 2010 Hugo nomination, and varying reviews. One more follows.

Title: The Windup Girl

Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
ISBN: 1597801577, 978-1597801577
First published: September 2009., and

All around, the factory is a hive of activity as workers try to put the place back in order. Men swarm over the megodont’s corpse, union workers with bright machetes and four-foot bone saws, their hands red with their work as they render down a mountain of flesh. Blood runs off the beast as its hide is stripped away revealing marbled muscle.

Hock Seng shudders at the sight, remembering his own people similarly disassembled, other bloodlettings, other factory wreckage…. It’s all so reminiscent of when the Green Headbands came with their machetes and his warehouses burned. Jute and tamarind and kink-springs all going up in fire and smoke. Slick machetes gleaming in the blaze. He turns his eyes away, forcing down memories. Forces himself to breathe.(21)



In a very bleak future, Andersen Lake runs a research factory in Thailand, but he’s really seeking the location of the Thai seed-bank (which contains important genetic information) and the renegade mad genetic scientist Gibbons. Meanwhile, his Chinese majordomo plots to steal secrets from Lake’s company, while frequently referring to his corporate bosses as “white devils.” The factory encounters problems with both an enraged genetically-engineered elephant who destroys equipment and a mysterious plague that kills workers. But Andersen’s problems will worsen.

Jaidee, kickboxer, fanatic, and incorruptible agent of the Thai government, destroys a contraband shipment which contains important resources for Lake and others. When the government comes down on Jaidee, he and his protégé turn rogue.

Lake, meanwhile, develops a relationship with Emiko, a genetically-engineered Japanese slave. Emiko only wants to live freely among her own kind, but she overwinds an already tight and tense situation when she murders a high-ranking Thai official who abuses her.

There’s more, but you get the idea.

High Point:

Emiko, the artificial Windup Girl, proves more real than anyone else in this novel. It may bother some readers that she’s at heart a male fantasy, a Hentei doll who turns ninja when pushed too far. However, I have no doubt that, when such creatures could be manufactured, they will be, and novel gives her feeling and conviction. I felt for her. Her circumstances reflect in ways both obvious and subtle the realities of life for the dispossessed and the marginalized, sex trade workers and the socially conditioned. She also raises obvious questions about what we should and should not do with genetic engineering, and what (as I’ve already said) we will do.

The Windup Girl‘s world allows for an exploration of the complex forces that drive politics. Bacigalupi’s plot begins slowly and heads in many directions, and some readers may give up. The novel’s difficulties, however, mirror the messiness of history.

Low Points:

In an interview given elsewhere, the author says:

At root, there was an aesthetic I was interested in, and I did everything I could to reinforce that. If you look at it through the lens of predictive science fiction, this story will definitely fail for you.

Ah, but there’s a problem with that. The book presents itself as some kind of predictive or, at least, grounded SF.

Unlike some reviewers, I didn’t really mind the ghost. It may be jarring in SF, but he handles it the way a writer of conventional, realistic fiction might handle the fantastic. I accept the “kink springs” as a source of power. And, no, I don’t read SF expecting a flawless set of predictions.

However, too many things about Bacigalupi’s future don’t make sense. He ignores many obvious energy sources in favor ones that suit his “aesthetic,” without so much as a hint why the characters ignore them. He has genetically-engineered super-elephants supply power that might be provided in other, less complicated ways, while constantly reminding us that food is scarce. I found myself fascinated with the world of the novel, while constantly tripping over its details.

The Scores:

Originality: 4/6 The author has imagined a dark corner of the future. Despite many familiar elements (and some unfamiliar elephants), it feels original.

Imagery: 5/6 I know what Bacigalupi’s future Bangkok looks like. I’m a little less certain on the characters (save for the Windup Girl herself), and entirely fuzzy on Cheshires. Some of the references to them, however, did have me smiling.

Story: 5/6. Many a reader will get lost in the novel’s labyrinthine, byzantine plot, but I credit Bacigalupi for bringing together so many diverse elements.

Characterization: 4/6. I’ve already discussed the characterization of Emiko. She’s more believable than the caricatured people who populate this novel, the greedy, manipulative western executives, the kick-boxing Thai agent, or the mad scientist Gibbons (of whom we might have seen more). I’m being a little unfair– the author does work plausible histories and reactions into his narrative quite nicely. However, I had difficulty seeing most of his characters as realized human beings.

Emotional Response: 4/6.

Editing: 5/6. Much of the author’s fame, the accolades from the SF establishment and places like Time magazine, rests on his dazzling, poetic prose style, something we need more of in genre.

Overall score: 5/6.

In total, The Windup Girl receives 32/42