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.