Dec 31

Book Review: The Windup Girl

The Windup GirlThe Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

What’s better than futuristic dystopian sci-fi? Futuristic dystopian sci-fi set in Thailand, a country I know very little about. The premise is that agro-conglomerates have engineered the world’s foodstuffs so that anything other than the strains owned and patented by the major corporate overlords will develop a blight that will kill people. One of the only safe breeds of rice is called U-Tex, for example. Thailand has a rogue genehacker who through pique has helped the Kingdom of Thailand remain mostly remain independent.

This world is delightfully exotic. International trade has been severely curtailed, and international travel is exorbitantly expensive. Megadonts, giant mastodons, provide brute labor. Energy is stored in kink-springs instead of batteries. Cats have been made extinct by cat-like creatures that change color like chameleons. People don’t shoot guns, they shoot spring-disks. They don’t drive cars, they ride kink-spring scooters. The signs of genetic engineering are everywhere, from the New People to the constant threat of some new disease. One of the characters brags that he’s been inoculated against diseases “which haven’t even been released yet.”

The premise is supposed to be that calories are currency, that food is the most valuable thing, but despite the characters saying that on more than one occasion, they didn’t act like it. Money still rules everything, and the characters spend very little time thinking about or trying to procure food. For example, one of the characters, Hong Seng (I think that’s his name) has a hut in a slum and he hides jewels and cash in a secret place, but he doesn’t have a cache of canned peaches or freeze-dried soybeans or a jar of kimchee buried in a field. They describe fruit, but they never describe a meal in the way that a perpetually hungry person might. They drink whiskey and complain that there’s no ice to put in it, but no one is wondering if his dinner will carry him through until payday. Some people even turned down fruit, which hungry people and people from hungry (within the past few generations) cultures do not. They offer gifts of cash, but not gifts of food. Some of them happily burn food, without apparent pangs of regret or remorse. So that whole “calories are currency” thing is just ad copy and has no real bearing on the way the world works. Every time they mentioned it, it was jarring and distracting.

The characters are all shady af. Hong Seng is a refugee trying to steal from the company he works for. He dissembles constantly, and he referred to his last surviving daughter as a “daughter mouth” which made him seem like a soul-less prick. Later he does a small thing to help another girl, and it’s maybe supposed to be a redemptive arc, but he’s too self-serving and unethical, and she’s been too much of a help to him to see this as an actual human action. Jaidee’s Lieutenant/Captain Kadra (I think that’s her name) was a fascinating character, very complex and almost likeable, but she’s also duplicious and evil, even if her reasons are sort of explained. Anderson is one of the main characters, a button man for a giant American corporation who is trying to get new strains of fruit for his company to breed. and while he’s at it, he wants to kill Thailand’s rogue geneticist, or get him under control or something. When Anderson seems to fall in love with Emiko, I thought he might be redeemed by that love, but then he just used her and threw her to someone whom he knew was depraved and evil. Carlyle is another foreigner who has big money behind him, some kind of shipping firm. They’re constantly trying to wheel and deal to get rich, and they’re the kind of men it’s easy to hate: rich, powerful and narcissistic with no regards for morality. The mysterious genehacker G (I can’t remember either of his names) was also pretty twisted and amoral, but he seems almost good by comparison because he doesn’t betray anyone he cares about.

There are only two main characters who aren’t evil are Jaidee and Emiko. Jaidee is a paladin type, a simplistic hero who sees the world in black and white. He’s a famous retired fighter who wants to do his job and protect his country from foreign contamination even if branches of his own country oppose him for it. Despite being warned, he doesn’t realize the danger until it’s too late and his wife gets kidnapped. (If we ever found out what happened to her, I missed it.) I was actually rooting for him, because he seemed to be a decent guy, unlike the rest of the louts. He’s the only one who has a family he cares about, which makes him seem relatable.

Emiko is different. Emiko is a “new person” but she’s described as being a windup girl. At first I thought she was some kind of a robot, but it turns out she’s a genetically modified humanoid who just happens to have a weird way of moving which gives her away when she tries to pass for human. Emiko is universally despised for being both non-human and Japanese. She overheats easily, which is a concern in tropical Thailand, and her patron buys her ice to keep her from shutting down. At one point Anderson is the one who saves her from overheating, and they had this sort-of romance thing budding, which, if it had been allowed to blossom and develop, might have saved him from being an unredeemable prick. Emiko doesn’t love him, but she has some gratitude for the fact that his abuse of her is minor compared to what she usually gets in her day job. She’s extremely submissive, pretty, and obedient, so despite being a skilled assistant and translator, her job is to be naked and have people stick things into her vagina. Various degrading sex acts performed on Emiko are described in detail.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about her character arc. I empathized with her desire for freedom, but her worry over how she was going to make it on her own fell flat since I’d never seen her concerned with where her next meal was coming from. I liked when she came into her own power and stopped being a tool for other people, but she was still mostly passive. Her one act of rebellion is more accident than choice. Even when she’s being active rather than reactive, it’s not something she chooses to do. I didn’t feel comfortable with the lavish detail that was spent on her humiliation and sex acts. It skirted the line between “this is why she’s so pissed off” and “ooh la la, isn’t this rape scene hot?” She was one of the few characters who wasn’t completely and totally self-serving, but only because she was genetically programmed to be slavishly obedient. I liked her more than the other characters, but she’s basically a sexy killer robot Japanese courtesan, which made me picture one of those big-eyed, small mouthed, squeaky, sexy-child, martial-arts waifs from all those anime shows I hate. I had to strenuously picture 19th century woodblock geishas to get that anime image out of my head. She was still the most likeable person in the book, after Jaidee.

This a complex and interesting book with a plot so complicated that I can barely summarize it. I got completely confused with all the different factions and who was working for whom and after about the 2/3rds mark I just stopped trying. I do prefer a plot that’s a little easier to follow, with more ends wrapped up. I wasn’t exactly sure how Anderson died, and what the nature of the contamination from SpringLife’s vat was, and I wanted to know what happened to Jaidee’s wife, and how the rogue geneticist escaped from the compound in Thailand. Most of the characters are utterly despicable, and I don’t care enough about them to follow them to another book, but I commend the author’s fascinating worldbuilding. I enjoyed spending time in a strange and alien world; it’s why sci-fi exists.

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