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REVIEW: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

REVIEW SUMMARY: A vividly realized, destitute world with characters full of their own agenda; constantly working against each other to an end that lacks punch.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In a future where corporate greed has driven the world to a near-constant brink of disaster, the Thai remain an island of seclusion — ever vigilant against an influx of bad fruit or infectious disease that could kill them all. This is a story of a medley of characters all trying to survive in a hostile world.

PROS: Smart, unique, well thought-out setting; realistic characters.
CONS: Story lacks cohesion; too many foreign terms; hard to feel there is a central conflict/character.
BOTTOM LINE: This is a story rich with ideas and setting but lacking the strength of a central character to follow on their journey.

On the surface The Windup Girl seems to have it all: distinct characters all working towards their own ends, sometimes in conflict, sometimes in harmony. You don’t know what will happen as a reader, only that something big is coming. The world is unique and plays with some of the big topics of the day.

The novel takes place in a dystopic future Thailand, where the world is beset upon by plague and famine — a result of massive corporate greed and folly. The oceans have risen and many of the world’s greatest cities are under water. Petroleum fuels are scarce and alternative energy abounds. The fruits and mistakes of genetic manipulations are everywhere. It is a difficult place to live for those not at the top.

Much of the book is spent explaining all of this and thus, if anything, the book’s focus is on setting. The ideas and the technology of the day are paramount. While it makes for a very real world — authentic to the Eastern culture of its location — it doesn’t necessarily make for an entertaining read. I’m sure some purists might call me something akin to illiterate for not finding it incredibly engaging, but I am not one that lives solely for the idea of a story. I want characters to rule, and that’s me. Who is the main character and protagonist? Is it Emiko? Or perhaps Anderson? Hock Seng? Jaidee? Kanya? Who? And who is the main antagonist? I honestly have trouble deciding. If the most sympathetic points to a main character, then you’d go with Emiko or Hock Seng, until halfway through when Hock Seng loses his pity edge and Emiko takes over…until she realizes her potential and well, no more pity. Kanya may have been the hidden heart of this novel, torn in multiple directions by the circumstances that shaped her young life, but the focus didn’t fall on her until halfway through. Her mentor overshadowed her and his potentially great story ended far too soon.

In a recent blog post I pointed out one difficulty of the novel for me was the use of foreign terms. I love a book that strives for an authentic feel, but it is a fine line to walk between imbuing the flavor of another culture or time or language and overkill — where the book pushes the reader away with its unfamiliarity. And, at least with language, I think Bacigalupi stepped over that line, for me.

With setting as key, I think the plot also suffers. A good story is more than just a reporting of a series of events. While there is structure here and each character is rife with their own agenda, it never becomes something special. I want to be entertained, sucked into the story and mesmerized by the plight of its characters. The Windup Girl did not do that for me. I think of it along the lines of this: In real life, every event does not necessarily happen for a reason or affect you in a profound way. However in a book, I think it should.

I’ll say one thing for sure: Bacigalupi fooled me and did so consistently. I was never able to figure out for sure what would happen next, but neither was I profoundly moved each time as I was by the esteemed George R.R. Martin. Though it may not have compelled me, it was interesting and in its own way: well done.

[See also: Karen Burnham’s critique and Jason Sanford’s review.]

17 Comments on REVIEW: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

  1. I love The Windup Girl. It was probably my favorite book which I read in 2010 (my review). I loved the story and the setting especially Emiko and Hock Seng. I didn’t feel that the foreign words and concepts pushed me out of the story. I thought they were effective in describing the setting and the situation.

  2. Once I figured out what a wai was and how important it was to interaction and manners, the rest fell into place.


  3. Nick Sharps // April 2, 2011 at 11:16 am //

    Didn’t you guys already review this book? I’m pretty sure you did because I bought it after I read the review and was highly disappointed. 

  4. Thanks for the comments!

    @Mark – I’m glad you liked it. It’s no doubt that Bacigalupi has talent. Perhaps if I hadn’t been so thrown by the terms and time spent setting up the world and technology level I would have gotten more into it and realized the appeal of the setting as the main draw. There certainly was a lot of time and effort put into this book that I can more than appreciate.

    Would you agree that there was no central character besides the city itself? If not, who do you think drew the longest straw for MC?

    @Nick – It’s not generally Denardo’s stance to limit what the contributors wish to review. This is the first time I’ve reviewed this book. We all work independently of each other on a volunteer basis. Every person has their own viewpoint. If you read the other two, you’ll see that one loved it and the other provided more of a critique. As you can see I had a different response. I imagine if their was a glut of reviews on a book already the hand of the Bagel Master may come down and keep the blog from becoming overwrought with it.

    So what was your biggest disappointment about the book? If you don’t mind my asking.

  5. Are you not going to post my comment? What was wrong with it??

  6. Whoa, Maria. Down, girl. Nothing is wrong. I just saw it in my e-mail to approve. And I can’t get the system (yet) to let me do so. *returns to keyboard to figure it out*

  7. Looks like I need Denardo to step in and approve it.


  8. Nick Sharps // April 2, 2011 at 12:53 pm //

    Oh! I see, my bad. I didn’t mean to come across as jerkish or anything I was just confused haha. My biggest complaint is that I didn’t care about a single character. They were all equally distasteful in my opinion. I did like the future that Bacigalupi invented but I had no real emotional attachment to it. I didn’t mind the foreign terms so much though I see where others might. 

  9. My biggest complaint is that I didn’t care about a single character. They were all equally distasteful in my opinion. 


    That’s actually one of the things I LIKED about the book. In real life, people are generally not good or bad, they’re a mixture, and they act out of self interest for the most part.

  10. When I read the the Windup Girl last year, I found it to be an mishmash of morose and unlikeable characters with the bare minimum of “story” linking them together..

    It was almost like Bacigalupi took two different short stories and mashed them together in a world that could not hold its own internal logic…


  11. Nick Sharps // April 2, 2011 at 2:35 pm //

    @Maria, I’m not against having morally ambiguous characters. Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy has nothing BUT ambiguous characters. The difference is that no matter how vile or treacherous or blood thirsty they are, Abercrombie finds at least some way to make them endearing. Hell, Logen Ninefingers the “hero” of the trilogy is a homicidal lunatic that has killed some of his own friends in battle. You can write a distasteful character and still make them likable. 

  12. And now we have Maria’s comment and all is well, thanks to Denardo!

    Regarding the wais, yes that video does help clarify how they enacted the motion, but I did take some time early in the book to define unfamiliar terms. It helped and it’s not like I was overly confused through the book, that was just one downside to the prose.

    @Nick – No worries. I agree that each character definitely had their downside, which in itself is not generally a bad thing, but in a way it didn’t help the book. I think Bacigalupi was trying to show how there is evil in every aspect of humanity no matter who they may be or where they may come from. Or perhaps that was subconscious for him, or just a lucky accident. It is kind of a gripping element, as an introspection of the way humanity works and how horrible we can wrought things for ourselves if we aren’t careful and try to do better than what we seem so prone to do. However, I think he ultimately still tried to sell the book as focused on character. I’m not sure how he could have done it better, but I think if he had focused either more on character or more on the setting and the general condition of depraved humanity portrayed, then it would have been a stronger book.

    @Maria – And that realism certainly threw me. I had the hardest time trying to figure out why I didn’t really jive with the book, because so much of it was done so well. I wanted a central character to bring all of it together, and there just wasn’t one here.

    @TW – That’s my central complaint as well.

    @Nick – Well, I will argue that there were elements of likability in all of them. Hock Seng had the element of pity and perseverance, Jaidee was resolute in his convictions even if they caused his death, Kanya was seeking revenge from a youth destroyed by violence, Emiko was tossed to the side like an outdated computer and just wanted to gain freedom for her body and a right to shape her own future, etc. But I just don’t think there was a main character chosen to pull us through the story.

  13. I think readers who insist on someone to be the main character or insist that one or more characters be likable, or that all foreign terms be replaced with English terms are depriving themselves of some of the delights of literature. In Madame Bovary when it was published in France some of the same criticisms were leveled. And yet today most readers will agree it is the masterpiece that the literary experts say that it is. And this is true even if your only language is English. If you read French the joys are at least doubled.

  14. And that, Honey, is why getting a new writer published is so gosh-darn hard. Subjectivity. Every reader has their own expectations (or lack of them) and desires.

    ‘Course there are other reasons too, but for any writer that’s decent, sought proper critique, revised their work and done their home work…well, that reason (above) is probably THE reason.

    That aside, I agree. I agree that going in with expectations and strict “no-no’s” for what you want or don’t is not what I’m going for. I have a preference, but I do want to expand my horizons and read outside of genre. Will I enjoy what I find…we’ll see. Sounds like you have not limited yourself and yet you post on a sci-fi blog. Do you have a preference and is it sci-fi?

  15. Hi Clifton, this isn’t “a” SF blog, it’s the best one out there and I use it to find articles and books I might otherwise miss. Regarding preference, I’m omniverous but much of my reading is genre but that will include not only SF but the pulp collections by Otto Penzler, the adventure novels by George MacDonald Frazier, the Turkish Mysteries by Barbara Nadal, the Tamil Pulp Fiction collection by Pritham K. Chakravarthy, Magical Realism by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Victor Pelevin, and foreign short story collections by writers as skilled as Daniyal Mueenuddin( In Other Rooms, Other Wonders) this from Pakistan, our own Kurt Vonnegut and anything else I find on the remainder shelves that can grab me in the first four pages. I also buy every mathematical recreation book I can get my hands on. Well Clifton, you DID ask. Regards, Honey

  16. Matte Lozenge // April 4, 2011 at 9:14 am //

    Characters don’t have to be likeable and they don’t have to be happy. But the reader has to care about their fate one way or another to make a successful story. When you’re in the middle of a book and you realize you don’t care what happens with any of the characters, what’s the point of finishing? That’s how I felt reading The Windup Girl. I finished it anyway because Bacigalupi has written other stories that I like so much.

    Ship Breaker is a fun romp in the same future and is better than Windup Girl, even though the hero’s feats are too facile to be believable. Pump Six is his best work so far IMO.

  17. @Honey – Hah, yes, I certainly did ask, didn’t I. Well my hat is off to you. You rattled off a barrage of writers that I’ve pretty much never heard of, with nary a sweat.

    @Matte – And that is exactly what I felt. I think if Bacigalupi had positioned Kanya in a more prominent role from the get-go, it may have made for a greater read. Her story began to take over the latter part of the book, but I think it was too little, too late. Thanks for the recommends, I’ll have to check out his other work some day soon.

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