[SF Signal welcomes guest reviewer Jason Sanford!]
REVIEW SUMMARY: A classic dystopian novel likely to be short listed for the Nebula and Hugo Awards.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In a future Thailand struggling against gened plagues and rising seas, the most important elements of life are the calories needed to stay alive. But as iron-fisted food corporations, flawed rulers, and an impure army of environmental defenders fight to impose their views on this world, an unlikely girl—who could be the next step in human evolution—fights for the right to simply live as she wants.
PROS: An all too possible future expertly crafted with beautiful writing, sympathetic characters, and a fast-paced plot.
CONS: Not a true con, but instead a warning. The novel features a few horrific scenes of violence, including sexual assault. While not gratuitous, this may disturb some readers.
BOTTOM LINE: One of the best first science fiction novels of recent years; a completely realistic and terrifying future populated with characters you’ll love even as they do things you’ll hate.
Back in the ’90s I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, teaching at a junior high school near Ayutthaya, the country’s ancient capital. The village I lived in had existed for centuries. Teak houses perched on stilts beside a small river. Picturesque rice fields grew green and lush. And right next door rose a massive shoe factory employing 20,000 people, complete with thrown-together cement slums to house workers from across the country.
In short, that village was a mix of change, tradition, and contradiction, which is typical of much of today’s world.
One day an idealistic German backpacker wandered through the village, waxing poetic about how the villagers needed to clean up the nearby slums, get rid of the factory, and remember the dignity of their agricultural past. My school’s Thai teachers listened politely to the tourist before he went on his way, no doubt convinced he’d illuminated the village’s poor benighted world.
After the man left, I asked one of my co-workers why no one said anything to rebut the tourist’s irritating comments and attitude. My Thai co-worker smiled. If the tourist was so ignorant of life, he said, who were we to make him lose face over something as silly as the truth.
My fear before reading The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi was that the novel would take the same limited approach to Thailand as that German tourist. That Bacigalupi would only show the facade most Westerners see when they visit the country—that of sandy beaches, rice paddies, smiling kind-hearted people, and chanting Buddhist monks seeking alms beside golden temples. While that is an aspect of Thailand, it’s not the whole story. Thailand is a proud country, which has remained independent for centuries and avoided the colonization which toppled every other country in the region. Yes, the Thai people are friendly, but they are also tough. They know that to survive in an ever changing world they must adapt or perish, even as they hold tight to their culture and beliefs.
To my delight, Bacigalupi perfectly captures these aspects of Thai culture—and by extension, the strengths of all humanity—in The Windup Girl. In this world, first seen in Bacigalupi’s Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award-winning story “The Calorie Man” and his Hugo-nominated “Yellow Card Man,” the United States is long gone but Iowan seed corporations are all powerful, releasing genetic plagues to destroy the world’s food-producing plants and force the purchase of their gened seeds. The only true indication of wealth is the calorie. Those without calories to eat face a bleak existence. Instead of electricity generation, people use high-tension crank generators, which directly convert the calories they burn into power.
But where Bacigalupi only skimmed this future with his preceding tales, in The Windup Girl he slams into it full force. Thailand is the place where these future trends converge for battle. Corporate spies for the agri-gene corporations plot to overcome the Thai kingdom’s isolation, which preserved the country as its neighbors fell to the plagues. Governmental armies fight to protect their land from foreign influences amidst a collapsing environment and rising seas, even as they treat their fellow citizens worse than any foreigner ever did.
Into this swirl of passion and political intrigue steps a windup girl named Emiko, an artificial person created with stop-jerk motion so others always know she isn’t truly human. She’s also gened to be subservient and obey her master—even after her master abandons her in Bangkok to a life of perversion and hate. She despises her life. Believes herself powerless to overcome her genetic-enforced limitations. But despite all this, she still dreams of freedom.
Think you now know where this story is going? Trust me, you don’t have a clue.
This book is not an environmental screed. It presents no simple answers and no simple villains or heroes. I rooted for almost every character in this book, even as they did things which truly horrified me. One of my favorite characters, Jaidee, is the equivalent of a jack-booted thug, the leader of the Thai environmental army called white shirts who terrorize and assault anyone threatening their view of the proper path in life. But he’s also a borderline bodhisattva or enlightened individual. And based on the world he lives in, it’s difficult to fault him for many of the choices he makes.
Other compelling characters include Jaidee’s second in command, Kanya, who secretly plots to betray Jaidee even as she worships him; Anderson, a representative of the biggest agri-genetic company and the rare foreigner who dares contemplate invading Thailand; and Hock Seng, a Chinese survivor of the genocide in Malaysia. I loved all these characters and wanted each to succeed, which is quite a feat considering they not only work against each other’s interests but some of them also work toward extremely unworthy goals. But that’s the strength of Bacigalupi’s writing. While he always combines a perfect ear for language with wonderful ideas and world-building, he never loses sight of how the humanity of a story’s characters makes that story worth reading.
This is a great novel and one of the best first novels in recent years, one which will surely be short listed for all the major science fiction awards. That said, readers should be aware there are moments of horrific violence in the book, including scenes of sexual assault. But this violence is never gratuitous, and while off-putting it is integral to the novel’s plot.
Bacigalupi has written a scary novel. A disturbing novel. A beautiful, fast-paced, exciting novel. And after I finished it—and reread the final chapters simply to experience again their beauty and emotional impact—I realized The Windup Girl is also a novel of hope. Unlike many dystopian authors, Bacigalupi knows that at our core humans always struggle against any challenge. While we may not consistently do right, we consistently hope to do better.
In this story of a future Thailand, Bacigalupi perfectly captures not only the heart of this fabled country and its people, but also the core essence and contradictions of all humanity. And there’s no better story to read than one which does all that.