Review: Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Windup Girl"

The Windup Girl
Paolo Bacigalupi
Night Shade Books (2010)
359 pages
Sci-Fi / Dystopian / Environmental Warning?


In a bleak future some indeterminate number of years from now, the ever global expansion of trade and culture has constricted back to a point where countries must fend for themselves or suffer the consequences.  Global plagues and famines have destroyed the world’s natural resources, and only through genehacking do companies have the ability to create food that could temporarily hold up against deadly disease.  Ivory beetles are quickly eating their way through trees, destroying what’s left of the natural world.  Sectarianism has created vast groups of illegal immigrants seeking low paying wages in hostile host countries where the natives do not want them.

Within pages, Paolo Balcigalupi creates a world that is both familiar and foreign, a reflection of the world today but much, much worse.  The current media-enhanced epidemic of bird flu and drug resistant bacteria is changed to cibiscosis that eats away your lungs and fungal diseases that leave skin scarred and puffy, destroying your body from the outside in.  Current fear of petroleum depletion is nothing compared to a world where giant elephant-like megodonts are used to power factories and humans use spindal run computers.  Global warming is not a "theory", but a proven fact with the ever increasing sea level.  Failed crops of today are nothing compared to blister rust destroying natural occurring food sources as a whole.

In this world, the city of Bangkok has barricaded itself from the outside world and, thanks to a mysterious genehacker, is able to feed its people foods that haven’t existed in lifetimes.  An American named Lake Anderson poses as a foreign owner of an energy-supplying kink spring company to cover his attempts at discovering these secret recreated foods and the source of their creation.  In his attempt to find the master genehacker, he is introduced to Emiko, a New Person – a genehacked humanoid creation of the Japanese, bred for loyalty and obedience – who is serving as a prostitute in an attempt to hide from the authorities after her owner abandoned her.  Thais aren’t too fond of the human-made heechy keechy creatures and she’d be killed if her jerky movements were caught by authorities that could not be bribed.

The world Balcigalupi created is amazing.  It’s so vivid, complex and complete that it took me a while to realize the story itself had taken a turn towards a political drama and far away from the android-esque girl of the title.  What seems to be the main story line becomes subsumed by a political war between two government factions: the insular Environment Ministry that has a nationalist stance that Thailand doesn’t need the help of foreigners to care for its people, and the global Trade Ministry that wants to open up global trade again for the sake of the country’s - and their treasury's - well-being. 

Before you know it there are a cast of characters with complex back stories and three dimensional personalities that allow you to follow multiple story lines weaving in and out of each other with no problem at all.  Though these multiple storylines do fall under the same problem that most complex stories have: by the time you’re immersed into a storyline, the chapter ends and a new one begins with a different set of characters and you don’t know when you’ll next pick up the plot you were so into.  It also causes slight confusion with shifts in time.  Events that occur parallel in time could be separated by chapters rather than paragraphs or even just line breaks.

Emiko does become central to the story, a catalyst for the events of the last third of the book, though she isn’t often “on screen”, which was disappointing.  I wanted more about Emiko, about the New People in general – their background, their history, how they were developed.  But then again, I really have a thing for robots.

The political battle that took over the book was interesting and allowed for a lot of action and changes in motivation, which makes for great story telling.  Political drama just isn’t really my thing.  Despite the elements of hard sci-fi that surrounded the story, in the end, it’s politics and explosions and riots and people getting hurt.  Without robots.  Though I have to say, I want to see a spring gun in real life.  They shoot small, sharp metal discs that sound like they would hurt even more than bullets.

Balcigalupi leaves it open for sequels in this world, though by the end, it’s a different world than when it began.  I hope he does return and perhaps with more focus on the sci-fi nature of the New People and genesplicing itself, rather than using both of those sci-fi elements as catalysts to a more pedestrian story.  In the meantime, I’ll have to pick up his other works.


B+ - very solid work, wonderful world building, solid political drama, not enough robots


Avaliable at all fine book selling establishments.  Purchase on Amazon here.