The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi was named a finalist for sci-fi’s Nebula Award. Cory Doctorow named it the current sci-fi “it” novel. After noting that fact in an earlier post, commenter Tom B. gushed that Windup Girl is “potentially transformative for the genre in the way Neuromancer was back in ‘84 or whenever. It’s been years since an sf novel so impressed me.” This week the novel made the shortlist for the Hugo Award, another sci-fi prize. Is the novel all that? Yes it is.
The Windup Girl is a thoughtful novel that packs a lot of social commentary into an action-packed story. The novel imagines a future where our worst fears of environmental catastrophe have come to pass. The days of oil are long gone. Long-distance travel is largely unworkable, effectively shrinking the world back to its pre-industrial roots. Work is accomplished almost strictly by mechanical means – human sweat on the small scale and by giant genetically engineered elephants, called megadonts, on the industrial scale. Calories replace oil as the driving fore behind economical development. Think about the implications of that for a moment.
Environmental destruction has collapsed ecological niches and the world’s food supplies are in grave danger (the source of the calories necessary for world economies as well as basic sustenance). In a vicious cycle, Calorie conglomerates offer sterile seeds at high prices while engineering blights to obliterate competing foods, driving up the costs of their feed stocks. The drive to regulate the world’s calorie markets is a cutthroat business where the losers may well find themselves eliminated from the global marketplace, if not the actual globe.
The novel takes place in Thailand. The world’s oceans have risen, having long vanquished most coastal areas, but a closely guarded flood wall protects coastal Bangkok from being consumed by the sea. The sea wall and Bankok’s very existence are a symbol of Thailand’s relative place of strength in the new world economy. The Environmental Ministry (Thailand’s EPA) necessarily wields substantial power to limit the use of greenhouse gas creating fuels, eliminate infected crops, protect its valuable seed banks, and guard its closed borders from outside environmental assaults.
In this global environment, many formerly prosperous societies have collapsed leaving chaos in their wake. Ethnic clashes erupt as one group blames another for their troubles. In Thailand, a complacency begins to settle in regarding the Environmental Ministry’s relative success at keeping the country alive. Power plays with other ministries play out as back room deals are made with global Calorie companies.
The titular Windup Girl is a genetically modified human. She was created in Japan to serve as a Geisha to a wealthy businessman. Her creators felt it necessary to imbue genetically modified humans with a tell tale jerky movements (like a windup doll) so that they could be readily distinguished from “real” humans. She found herself abandoned in Thailand and left to fend for herself, eventually coming into the hands of an unscrupulous strip club owner. In Thailand, the Windup Girl is genetic contraband and subject to immediate destruction if discovered by the authorities. Huge bribes are necessary to “hide” her presence. The fate of the Windup Girl has implications far beyond what anyone can imagine.
If it sounds like there is a lot going on in this novel, it’s because there is. And I’m not doing this novel of incredible ideas justice by half. Bacigalupi let’s it all emerge on the page organically without sacrificing the story for the “message” or to showcase gee-whiz “what if” scenarios. It all plays out as a very real and very possible dystopia. This feat is even more impressive considering that this is Bacigalupi’s debut novel. I am pulling for him to win all of the upcoming awards and I’ll be going back to read his well regarded short story collection Pump Six and Other Stories.