The Windup Girl: Book review
The Windup Girl won the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the Locus Award for best first novel. After reading it, I'm only surprised that it hasn't scooped up more accolades.
The Windup Girl is a speculative fiction novel. For those unfamiliar with the genre, speculative fiction is a subset of science fiction that Bacigalupi describes as "the stealth version ... where you're extrapolating about who are we, where are we going [and] what our society looks like".
The novel is set in a future version of Thailand. Food is scarce and ravaged by bio-engineered plagues like blister rust and cibiscosis, which have rendered much life extinct.
In this world, the calorie companies wield immense international power by controlling the food supply. Anderson Lake is the manager of SpringLife factory in Bangkok, who are developing new advances in energy technology. However, this is only a front as he is an employee of AgriGen, a calorie company.
Anderson is investigating the origin of "nightshades", or extinct produce, that have been mysteriously surfacing in Thailand. He is surrounded by characters that all have their own agendas, like Hock Seng, a refugee with a keen survival instinct, and Emiko, the windup girl after whom the novel is named.
The windup girl is one of the New People - a bioengineered race - and Emiko struggles to survive in a hostile society. Thailand's political and social tensions are finely balanced and the main characters' machinations soon have events spinning out of control.
Most modern speculative fiction tends to throw readers into a foreign setting and expect them to keep up, which can alienate people who are not fans of the genre. Although Bacigalupi's world is detailed, well-imagined and consistent, it is also easily comprehensible from the very first chapter.
The story is populated with characters who are not wholly good nor evil, but human and driven by very realistic desires. This novel provides a new perspective on political and social turmoil by focussing on the roles of key individuals who become a part of major events.
Bacigalupi's work starts slowly, with separate stories unfolding as social tensions gradually build in the background. Eventually, the fragile society is shattered and, as all the strands are drawn together, there is plenty of action. The book is unflinching in the way it deals with conflict, survival, exploitation and abuse.
I can honestly say that I've never read a book quite like this. The Windup Girl is a must read for any speculative fiction fan (like me). It is clever and insightful and I think it will become a classic.
For people who are wary of the genre, this book may convert you. Give The Windup Girl a chance; I think it will be a rewarding experience.
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Hachette (Orbit)