Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Windup Girl - review

In a distant, dystopic future, food is at a premium and human life is balanced on the very edge of survival.

Anderson Lake – undercover man for AgriGen, a somewhat shadowed US company, is working at an algae factory in the Thai Kingdom, trying to track down the source of the Thais’ all-important – and pure – seedbank.

Anderson’s days are filled with the factory, and with carefully investigating and asking questions, trying to locate the seedbank. Things are going – slowly, but not badly – until he meets Emiko, the Windup Girl.

Emiko is one of the New People: genetically engineered with certain traits by the Japanese. Ditched in the Thai Kingdom by her former owner, she’s making a living of sorts as a prostitute, catering to those with a taste for the exotic and bizarre.

This rather bleak future is the background for Paolo Bacigalupi’s debut novel, The Windup Girl.

There are other key players as well – Anderson’s corrupt assistant at the factory, Hock Seng. The incorruptible official Jaidee – known as the Tiger – who is the scourge of bribetakers everywhere.

The story, by and large, though, belongs to Anderson and Emiko. Anderson isn’t exactly what I’d call a sympathetic character. He’s a company man through and through, nearly until the end. The only humanising influence in his life is Emiko who is not – for all intents and purposes – actually human.

She’s regarded with suspicion by nearly everyone and the Thai Kingdom regards Windups as little more than genetic mistakes, good for nothing but recycling.

Emiko fights hard against her genetic heritage – the rather doglike obedience that has been introduced into her DNA; against her telltale tick-tock Windup movements that betray her origin, and especially against her soul-crushing job as a prostitute in a very dissolute bar.

Anderson’s fascination gives her hope to reach for something better, but it also has devastating consequences for both of them.

Emiko … Emiko is just haunting. I felt so much sympathy for her, and frustration when her innate obedience forced her to do things that did nothing but degrade her. When she breaks her programming and fights back, she does it in spectacular – and bloody fashion.

I couldn’t like Anderson. I suppose he was supposed to be some kind of anti-hero but really … mostly he’s unpleasant. Emiko does give him back some of his humanity but not enough in the end to redeem him as a character.

Perhaps because of the somewhat grim nature of the future Bacigalupi has created, there are very few sympathetic characters – and they’re the ones who tend to be punished.

However, having said that, there are some bright moments, and some characters are allowed redemption – or at the very least, peace.

The Windup Girl is a very thinky, dense novel; packed with ideas  and terrifying what-ifs.

Good stuff.


Alex (The Sleepless Reader) said...

My best sci-fi of 2011.

It's interesting to see how must more scary recent sci-fi can be just because the future these authors imagine is so much more a possible reality than the space-ships of Philp K Dick or Heinlein.

Debi said...

Yikes. I've really really been wanting to read this for a while. It sits on my shelf taunting me. It just sounds so damn intriguing. And your review just left it sounding all the more intriguing. But! It scares the ever-living crap out of me. And your review also reiterated that with "a very thinky, dense novel" *sigh* What's a girl to do? :P

Care said...

No way I'm ready for a dystopian thinky dense novel for awhile.

When are we starting 1Q84? Any plan ideas? I'll be traveling to TX this weekend and not sure I want to take this book cuz it is HUGE and heavy. Can we start on the 10th? or I will and...
We need a plan, yes? :)

Kailana said...

I really want to read this...I didn't love his young adult book, but I still want to continue reading him.

Maree said...

Alex: That is interesting. I think it's so frightening because it is so plausible.
Debi: It's really good!! Thinky, yes but well worth reading
Care: The 10th suits me fine. Shall we just discuss on twitter with a #1Q84 hashtag, do a co-review at the end, or both? I'm flexible :-)
Kailana: I haven't read Shipbreaker but this one is really good :-)

Marg said...

I got about half way through this and then it expired (I got it through Netgalley) and I just couldn't be bothered making an effort to go and get the actual book.

Care said...

yes, I'll send you a tweet right now. :)
I think Kailana will be joining us, do you know hertwitter name? i'll drop by herblog and ask.

John Michael Cummings said...

Dear Just Add Books:

Can I interest you in reviewing my new book of fiction, UGLY TO START WITH, published last month by West Virginia University Press?

I've won awards for my writing. If you write me back at, I'll send you some information.

I would be grateful to hear from you.

Thank you.


John Michael Cummings

Eesti said...

Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl is intelligent and frightening. Agricultural companies rule the world, distributing sterilized versions of crops long ruined with diseases like blister rust, cibiscosis, and scabis mold. The Earth of the future is one gone to waste; politics, climate, and resources like food and energy (i.e. oil) have deteriorated. In Thailand, the government has set up factions to control their most precious material: a genebank containing original crop DNA free from existing disease and genetic enhancement, the epitome of all that is natural and good to the Thai people.