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The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi (review)

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  • The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi (review)

    For the first time in years I have been completely blown away by a book.

    I have just finished reading "The Windup Girl", by Paolo Bacigalupi (Nightshade books, 2010 edition, originally published 2009)

    The setting for "The Windup Girl" is a couple of centuries into the future. There are plenty of clues to the history of events leading to the world of the story, but it is never explained as a straightforward narrative -- it comes from brief references within the main story. The preceding history involves rise and fall of civilizations, new technologies, new problems and issues, and plenty of recognizable links to the world we know now. The scope and complexity of this setting is breathtaking, but the really incredible aspect of the book is that all of this richness is secondary backdrop to the characters in the story and the details of the events and human issues that are the main focus.

    The setting is Krung Thep (Bangkok). The major characters of the story are from a mix of backgrounds; native Thai, Chinese diaspora, foreigners from Japan, USA, Europe; and the Windup Girl who gives the book its title.

    The backdrop is a world ravaged by plagues from genetically modified organisms. A world where genetic modification is a pivotal technology and seedbanks or genebanks preserving something of a lost living diversity are a crucial resource. A post-oil world; where coal and methane continue to be used but the major power source is brute animal force; and the major power store is a "kink-spring"; a highly advanced essentially clockwork mechanism able to store large amounts of mechanical energy that can be released as it unwinds; not as much as a tank of fuel, but still significant. A small spring can be wound up by a laborer pedaling; big ones are primed in a factory assembly line powered by "megadonts" (genetically modified elephants) driving the spindles. An elevator is powered by having a troop of coolies run up the stairs and enter a counterweight carrier. A hotter world, with a higher sea level. The city itself is only preserved by a sea wall and pumps; as a defiant refusal to abandon the "City of Divine Beings". A world were food is currency and starvation rife, with pests and plagues used as economic weapons now run rampant. A world of reduced living diversity, where many planets and animals are lost to those pests and plagues. A world only just entering a new era of international trade and exchange after a hinted at period of collapse.

    It's a world that continues to have all complexity of clashing cultures and faiths. Buddhism is the major religion; as expected from the Thailand setting. There are hints of troubles and clashes with Islam in other South East Asian nations; as a part of the history of characters who have escaped from more troubled regions. There are huge tensions between the Thai population and foreign business people -- especially those involved in Agriculture and the supply of food and seed (usually sterile seed) resistant to "blister rust", or "ivory beetle", or any of a host of other pests. There is the population of non-native refugees, especially Chinese. There are the internal tensions with various government departments and factions, and internal struggles for political power. There are the class issues, with a very recognizable South East Asian feel, of a large population of struggling poor and the smaller elites.

    It's a brutal world; a recognizable brutality a little amplified from what we see around the world today; though compounded with the harsh requirements of pestilence and scarcity. Yet it is also a hopeful world, where people continue to struggle to face problems and surmount them, even in the midst of war and revolution.

    Conventional science fiction works would focus on the enormous scope of the complex and detailed future world; and a really good novel could have been written in this way. The Windup Girl is not like that; it is much much more.

    The story involves Anderson Lake (an agribusinessman and putative investor from Des Moines), Hock Seng (Chinese refugee struggling to restablish a life), Jaidee Rojjanasukchai (Thai captain of a militarized environmental protection department, incorruptible and idealistic), Emiko (the windup girl, a genetically modified human organism made as a plaything for wealthy Japanese), and many others; all involved in a complex interacting struggle with conflicting motivations and objectives. All the characters are flawed in one way or another; despite the title no one of them is the single central figure. This human story is the meat of the book and the focus of the events told therein.

    I am totally in awe of this book; it is the most rich and satisfying and thought provoking book I have read for many years. It's won many awards; has anyone else here read it?

    Cheers -- sylas

  • #2
    “Around him, Bangkok's newly renovated airfield spreads in all directions, lit by high-intensity methane lamps mounted on mirror towers: a vast green-bathed expanse of anchor pads dotted with the massive balloons of the farang floating high overhead, and, at its edges, the thickly grown walls of HiGro Bamboo and spun barbed wire that are supposed to define the international boundaries of the field.”

    If it’s as good as you say, I’ll have to read it. I found it in pdf on the interwebs, free, gratis and for nothing. 2009 edition.
    “I think God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability.” ― Oscar Wilde
    “And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence” ― Bertrand Russell
    “not all there” - you know who you are


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