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CRITIQUE: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Windup Girl has been reviewed in lots of places. So this review is going to lean towards critique… and that means I’m going to talk about the ending. Don’t read any further if you hate having endings ‘spoiled.’ Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

The People of Sand and Slag” (2004) was my first exposure to Paolo Bacigalupi’s work, and it blew me away. What sort of people would we be, what would we do to this planet, if we could engineer ourselves to live on bare rock? It was intense and disturbing and depressing and it really stuck with me. The next year I read “The Calorie Man” (2005). Again, blown away. “Calorie Man” gave us a different and illuminating take on what powers economics, right down at the bottom. Since then I’ve kept up with his short fiction, most of which I’ve loved (with last year’s “The Gambler” being another favorite). I looked forward to his first novel with keen interest. What I found in Windup Girl were many of Bacigalupi’s strengths, but also a great big glaring weakness that really hindered my appreciation of the book.

Windup Girl takes place in Bangkok, Thailand. In this future, like today’s Netherlands, Bangkok is holding back the rising waters that (literally) threaten to drown it. The world we’re in is firmly the same universe as “The Calorie Man” and “The Yellow Card Man,” (2006) both of which I recommend reading before embarking on the novel. I’m not entirely sure that the ‘calorie man’ concept came through clearly in the narrative if you read it without knowing the background. So, we have a post-oil near future. Global warming has hit in full with rising tides drowning many boats. In the absence of oil, everything from transportation to city power has become more complicated. Interestingly, this book does not detail the actual nigh-apocalypse caused by the oil running out. The characters refer to the ‘Expansion’ (the time we’re living in now), and then the ‘Contraction,’ a time of chaos and mass die-offs.

In this time of relative calm, we follow four characters in Bangkok. Anderson Lake is a westerner out to profit from Thailand’s relative prosperity and farsightedness. Officially he is overseeing a factory that is developing kink-spring drives that can store energy more efficiently than current models. Unofficially he is looking for access to Thailand’s enormous library of genetic material, a seed bank that stores its true natural resource. The motivation for all this is a little muddy if you read this as a stand-alone; “The Calorie Man” lays out the case for genetic diversity and its importance more clearly. Hock Seng is a ‘yellow card,’ a barely tolerated Chinese refugee from Malaysia. There the Islamic community rose up and slaughtered most of the Chinese community, even families who had lived there for generations. Hock Seng had been a very prosperous businessman, but was left with little more than his skin and a mass of psychic scars. He works for Lake but has only one focus: doing whatever he must to make sure that he never, ever gets trapped or taken by surprise that way again. He has plans upon plans, but what he lacks are the plans for Lake’s manufacturing line, which he hopes to sell for protection and resources.

On the other side Jaidee Rojjanasukchai and Kanya Chirathivat work with the Thai customs agency. They protect Thailand from all enemies, especially foreign (and potentially plague-bearing) genetic material. Most customs officials are easily bribed, but Jaidee is the ‘Tiger of Bangkok,’ who actually cares about protecting his homeland. Off to the side a bit is Emiko, the eponymous ‘Windup Girl.’ She is genetically engineered to be a ‘companion’ to a Japanese businessman: a lover, but also a secretary and translator. Unfortunately, she was sold off by her former owner and wound up in a whore house, where every night she is graphically sexually humiliated in front of crowds of men. From Lake she learns of a colony of runaway windup people up north somewhere, but almost every motion marks her out as a created creature. Windups are popularly believed to be soulless, are illegal in Thailand, and are considered abominations by the new fundamentalist Christian sect, the Grahamites. (It seems that no post-apolcalyptic near-future is complete these days without some fundie Christians running around).

All of the characters proceed to navigate an ahem dynamically challenging environment. Thailand’s government is not stable; one strong king led them through the Contraction successfully, but in the time of the book there is a child princess and a regent. The regent has one faction, and the army (including the customs agency) has another. A string of more-or-less random events brings all the pent-up conflict to a head, and everyone must survive as best they can. In fact, some of them don’t survive. At the end, huge changes have been wrought in Thailand.

I definitely liked the range of characters that Bacigalupi picked for his points of view; they encompass the scene usefully from several different perspectives. Each of them is well-drawn, with clear motivations (although sometimes they fail to be much more than the collection of their motivations; I think Hock Seng and Kanya best rise above these limitations). I appreciate his vision of a post-oil future and what that might mean, how other tech could fill the gaps and what gaps might be left. I found the depiction of a political climate so volatile that any random spark sets off an explosion of pent-up conflict to be excellent.

Here’s my biggest reservation about the novel, the bit that I may not be able to overcome. When you choose an exotic third world country as your setting, you have to deal with the modern-day baggage that it brings along with it in the mind of many (ignorant) Westerners–like me. The Western stereotype of places like Thailand is that they are already cesspools of political and economic chaos. (Consider Thailand’s most recent flare-up of protests, violent repressions, and borderline civil war.) Basically, I feel like the future depicted here doesn’t seem that much worse than the present that I imagine in Thailand and other countries in similar situations.

Likewise, Emiko is burdened by her real-world counterparts. Emiko is an enslaved whore, but lucky for her she is not only a genetically engineered geisha, she is also a genetically engineered super-ninja assassin who gets to kill the men who abuse her most horrifically and then survive the political crisis, violence and eventual flooding sparked by her revenge rampage. In fact, because of her super-abilities and the intervention of a random genetic engineer in the epilogue (a gun that was only barely and somewhat conveniently laid on the mantlepiece in the main narrative), she may be the future of humanity. (Although that future may ultimately lead us to “The People of Sand and Slag,” still not a happy place.)

Now, I imagine (and Western anti-slavery activists tell us) that there are many, many women in sexual slavery in parts of the world right now who have no hope or ability to better their lot. They are not super-ninjas just waiting for the right trigger to wreck their just revenge. They live lives of torture and abuse and they often die young. Likewise, there are good government officials now standing up to corrupt ones, and there are political factions out there who don’t care who they have to kill to get power, and there are Westerners seeking to take advantage of third world resources–sometimes they succeed and sometimes they get chewed up and spit out by cultures and forces they don’t understand. There are barely tolerated refugees out there right now, and some of them make it and a lot of them don’t. So I just keep thinking about the real enslaved prostitutes, and the real customs officials, and the real barely legal refugees out there in the world, and I wonder why, in “Windup Girl’s” resource-depleted future, these characters seem to have more resources and more agency than their real world counterparts.

(I must note that this is a systematic bias of almost all fiction: we prefer to read about people who succeed –Heroes–or at least have the power to possibly succeed, rather than people who cannot change their own lot. But you would think that of any writer, Bacigalupi would be among the least likely to hew to this convention.)

How does this post-apocalyptic Thailand illuminate Bacigalupi’s message? If we are meant to be shocked and dismayed at the sheer quantity of abuses, on levels of sex, gender, power, class, race, ethnicity and any other form you can think of, why not write a book about people living in these conditions today? Why not write non-fiction, or make a documentary? If, on the other hand, we are meant to be shocked by the horrors of this energy-scarce post-apocalyptic world, why not show the Contraction, when so much of the Earth’s population died? Why depict the time when things have regained enough stability to duplicate the abuses of today? I hate to accuse the infamously depressing and dystopian Bacigalupi of having a too-optimistic ending, but too much of this book seemed like revenge fantasy: more bad guys die than good guys, the ‘right’ faction wins the day even though it causes huge disruptions to the nation, and the abused sex slave gets to kill those who enslaved her and in fact becomes the future hope of humanity.

Maybe this book would have worked better if I were more familiar with Thailand today; then I would clearly see the differences and be shocked by them. But it isn’t so different from the images I have in my head of modern-day failed states–whether they be in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, or Africa–to shock me with how much worse things would be after the energy runs out. I still appreciate Bacigalupi’s detailed vision of a post-oil future, but for me this milieu wasn’t the best background against which to showcase that future.

I must also mention that I was almost certainly put off the whole enterprise by the extraordinarily graphic and unpleasant descriptions of Emiko’s sexual torture at the hands of her oppressors. I assume that Bacigalupi chose to show those scenes in such detail in order to make her ultimate revenge both justified and a cause of celebration. But I’ve never really been good at stomaching scenes like that; reading them hurt in a much more visceral way for me than most other depictions of random violence.

About Karen Burnham (82 Articles)
Karen is vocationally an engineer and avocationally a sf/f reviewer and critic. She has worked on the Orion and Dream Chaser spacecraft and written for SFSignal, Strange Horizons, and Locus Magazine.

11 Comments on CRITIQUE: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

  1. Dino Mascolo // May 24, 2010 at 2:10 am //

    I can’t help thinking about Ray Bradbury’s philosophy on critiques. It’s basically that if you think something should be in one of my books or stories that isn’t, or if you think that something should not be in one of my books or stories, feel free to write your own book or story. “The Windup Girl” is one of the best books I have ever read. I have no doubt that it will also win the Hugo Award.

  2. I think you have the wrong approach. The novels strength is in the fact that it does not describe the contraction, that kind of story we have read before, many times. But it describes the eerie likeness in the way life goes on as before even if the world around has changed a lot. Yes we have refugees and prostitutes now, and yes we will have them in the future as well. To me the appeal of The Windup Girl is the way he describes a familiar life even after the world we now live in has come to a relative halt, thus conveying the fact that the outer things such as cars and oil-based industy that we now consider integral parts of our civilisation aren’t really important. The important things are the people and their motivations and abilities to survive the chaos. So if he was to describe the downfall of the oil-based civilisation i think the book would be alot less interesting to me anyway.


    And i also believe it stands well enough alone. I had not read anything of the author before, and quite enjoyed the book.

  3. It’s been a while since I read this but I agree that Emiko is not the strenght of this novel. Putting aside opinions on whether or not graphic descriptions of the abuse she suffers should have been part of the novel, the way she finaly breaks her conditioning didn’t seem very convincing to me.

    As for the setting… I suppose it didn’t have to be Thailand but I don’t think his message would have been any clearer if he’d set it during the Contraction. The people living though that period would have been too busy to survive to have time to think about where it went wrong. That usually comes after.

    I think he drives his message home pretty well in this book. The fact that you decribe the results of running out of oil and the further industrialization of agricultere as the apocalypse is telling in that respect. To really underline it, he then uses a setting where, despite being having been shown the consequences, people are STILL trying to undermine the one state that is actually trying to lessen the dependence on high tech, genetically engineered seed stock produced by a small number of companies. This level of stupidity is so believable that it is by a fair margin the most frightning thing in the book in my opinion.

  4. Thanks for your comments, folks! I agree that “Windup Girl” is one of the most important sf books of the year. I wouldn’t be offended if it won the Hugo, and I may still vote it #1, I’m not sure. Although I will note that the Hugos have not been kind to Bacigalupi’s short fiction when it has been nominated in the past. I still wish he’d won it for either “People of Sand and Slag” or “Calorie Man.”

    I’m glad the novels stands alone well without the short stories for background.

  5. I thought Emiko was a little unrealistic as well and that her story read a little too much like a fairytale (rags to riches, in a very peculiar way). That said, I think she serves a balancing purpose: if her storyline was just one battering after another, it would make it really bleak, and the rest of the novel is already as depressing as they come. I for one was glad that someone made it out of there alive and well (not to mention the obvious symbolism that her kind will inherit the world humans have wrecked). So to me, it wasn’t realistic, but it was still very much welcome and needed, or I would have gone into a very big funk by the time I finished reading.  

    Just as a datapoint, it’s not always obvious to differentiate the various Asian countries, but Thailand is one of the most developed countries in Asia (third in SE Asia after Singapore and Malaysia, 7th in Asia, after the First World nations, China and Brunei). Right now, the situation with the red shirts is a bit iffy, but Thailand’s still a whole order of magnitude more stable and rich than, say, Zimbabwe (which truly is a cesspit in many, many ways). The depiction of the country in the novel is clearly much diminished from the present state (it’s even more diminished than the current state of Vietnam, its much poorer neighbour). 

  6. Well, there’s a couple of points to this, I think. The firs thing is, I don’t know that this is really a book about slavery and ethics, but more about the post-oil world and some of the problems that we’ll face. There’s a lot of similarities with Bachacalupi’s world and our own, but this goes to one of the strengths of science fiction. Why not write a documentary or non-fiction piece? Well, he’s a science fiction writer. SciFi is a fantastic medium for looking at present problems, pulling them out of a familiar context and planting the ideas into a place where we’ll see them in a different light. Why not show the contraction? Well, that’s really not where the story of Emiko ended up – there’s certainly other stories there, but you don’t necessarily need to show everything to get the points across – I think writing the book in the period in which it was written worked better, because you see the results. Lastly, there’s really nothing wrong with a good ending – this one worked quite well. 

  7. I had a similar review, and being Malaysian myself, I also found myself repulsed by many of the things you mentioned. I enjoyed Hock Seng (not how Malaysia was presented), but I had to put the book down several times and force myself to continue. I also questioned the choice of Thailand, particularly in light of Emiko’s circumstances.

    I found the novel stood well enough on its own, although I’m sure reading the other stories would help flesh the setting out further.

    Dino Mascolo: You know what’s also true? The fact that fans have their own opinions about their favourite writers that the writers may not always share. 

    Pug: Everyone has a different approach to a novel. There is no “wrong” approach; to say that is to privilege one point of view over another. In my reading, I approached the book using an anti-racist lens and found all the problems described in this review. Another person approached the book using a Marxist lens and found the book extremely compelling as a result. We all get different things from a single book. That’s what makes a book interesting to discuss and interact with. 

  8. As the person who wrote the original SF Signal review for The Windup Girl (which is linked to at the top of this page), my views on this novel are likely well known. I believe The Windup Girl is the best SF novel of 2009 and was thrilled when it won the Nebula Award.

    Without rehashing my original review, I’d like to address a few points raised here:

    • I disagree that the novel portrays Thailand as a failed state. Instead, Thailand is shown as one of the only successful states left in a world where the USA and all other countries have fallen. In fact, the Thai kingdom is so successful that by the end of the novel it survives an attempted Agri-Gen invasion, an event which the novel makes clear destroyed most other countries. But the novel doesn’t pretend this resilience is due to the government of Thailand–instead, this resilience is due to the Thai people and their culture.
    • It is a mistake to read the novel totally in light of recent events in Thailand. Having spent a good deal of time in Thailand as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I have a little familiarity with the country. And it is interesting how many people one both sides of the recent protests and violence have complained about misunderstandings and misreadings of those events by the international media. To try and apply our limited understanding of what recently happened in Thailand to the future events discribed in The Windup Girl strikes me as very wrong.
    • I believe the ending of the novel derived perfectly from the narrative’s events and worked very well. I also disagree with using Emiko as a stand-in for the current victims of the sex trade. Yes, it is obvious there are parallels between Emiko and sex slaves in today’s world, but Emiko’s situation is both made different and more complex by who she is. Where today’s victims are treated as if less than human, Emiko is treated as less than human because by the definitions of her world she IS NOT human (even through, as the novel’s ending shows, she is in many ways better than human). It is also unfair to complain about Emiko being able to escape her circumstances when so many of those in today’s sex trade can’t escape. That is too close to complaining that one should never write fiction about any real-world horrors because the fiction will either gloss over the horrors or fail to capture it. Emiko escaped because that’s what the events of the story lead her to do.
  9. Justin Oryschak // May 24, 2010 at 10:10 pm //

    I can’t help thinking about Ray Bradbury’s philosophy on critiques. It’s basically that if you think something should be in one of my books or stories that isn’t, or if you think that something should not be in one of my books or stories, feel free to write your own book or story. “The Windup Girl” is one of the best books I have ever read. I have no doubt that it will also win the Hugo Award.”


    That’s a crappy attitude. There’s a lot to gain from criticism, and just blindly dismissing all criticism towards a work of your own or by someone else means you’re losing a lot of opportunities to improve the work. The points mentioned in the post are valid, constructive criticism. Don’t take it personally.

    Besides, it must get tiresome screaming “GO MAKE YOUR OWN MOVIE THEN” whenever you read one of Ebert’s objectively thoughtful and entertaining reviews in the newspaper or website. 

  10. Dino Mascolo // May 25, 2010 at 2:52 am //

    I was thinking all day that I probably didn’t explain my feelings on this review very well. I’m sorry for that. The reason I said what I said was because the reviewer started questioning why Bacigalupi didn’t write a different kind of book.

    “why not write a book about people living in these conditions today? Why not write non-fiction, or make a documentary? If, on the other hand, we are meant to be shocked by the horrors of this energy-scarce post-apocalyptic world, why not show the Contraction, when so much of the Earth’s population died? Why depict the time when things have regained enough stability to duplicate the abuses of today?”

    At this point in the review Karen is no longer talking about the book that was actually written. And the only answer to this, in my opinion, is to say, “If you think a book like that should be written then write it”. The rest of the review is excellent, even though I disagree with it. Ray bradbury often tells the story that people have asked him many times, “Why don’t you write books with minority heroes?”, or “Why don’t you write books with women heroes?” That’s what I was reminded of.

    Justin, I hope you can admit that the tiresome screaming comment was a little much.



  11. Jha: You are right, of course everybody has their own approach, and that is fine. I was merely trying to convey that i agreed more with Dino Mascolo in the first post and point out that the story worked fine as it is, rather than wish for things that aren’t in it. But when i re-read it i see i failed at that 🙂

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