A grand, epic, poetic vision of a dystopic future, the Hugo Award-winning novel by the brilliant Paolo Bacigalupi will live with you and haunt you long after you put the book down. Imagine a future where the most important global and political concern is restoring the Earth’s once-plentiful biodiversity, where seeds, gene hacking, and the calories that food provides are crucial for survival.
Thailand has risen to prominence; the United States and most other once-powerful countries have fallen or been grossly weakened, though there is still an immensely important seed bank and research facility in Des Moines, Iowa. In The Windup Girl, Anderson Lake, AgriGen’s Calorie Man in Thailand, works under cover as a manager at a money-losing factory. His main goal is to comb through Bangkok’s street markets on the lookout for vegetables and fruit thought to be extinct and,, as the inner leaf of the dust jacket states, “reap the bounty of history’s lost calories.” What will happen to his life when he becomes romantically involved with the New Person Emiko, the “windup girl” of the title?
Lake has to be careful about what he does in his role as a Calorie Man. Many people in Thailand resent the farangs, the white foreigners who have established businesses and lives in Thailand. They have plenty of reasons: Calorie Men in the past have developed genetic varieties of food like rice that made other varieties sterile in attempts to best the competition and drive them out of business. They have also brought many plagues and diseases, resulting in the disfigurement, sickness and deaths of millions of people around the world. Lake is, on the one hand, a type of modern-day hero, trying to reestablish an Eden (kind of like our present-day Earth); on the other hand, to many people in Thailand, he represents evil, a terrible ongoing chapter of suffering and death.
The New People are creche-grown engineered beings not considered to be entirely human but are so much like them that as I was reading (and afterwards), I was left wondering what it really means to be “human.” I was reminded of Philip K. Dick’s amazing novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the movie adaptation, Bladerunner, and the androids who seemed to possess so many human qualities that it was often difficult to detect which was which. The New People are considered by some to be soulless beings or devils and are at best second-class citizens in the Brave New World that the author writes about. They were created to be soldiers, slaves, and the toys of the rich, and Emiko is no different.
Emiko was created and programmed to satisfy the whims of a Kyoto businessman. In Japan, her stylized, doll-like mechanical movements, tiny, mincing steps and jerkiness are admired. In Thailand, as long as she has her papers with her and her owner is in the country, she is treated like a royal emissary or a princess. She was created with smaller pores than humans and as a result can’t sweat to cool herself off. Her heart also beats faster than normal humans, like a hummingbird’s. When the businessman decides it will be cheaper to travel back to Japan without her and leaves her in Thailand without her official papers, the reality of what it’s like to be a New Person - a windup girl in a foreign land, a being with no rights, looked down upon as scum - hits her. The only way she can survive is to allow herself to be pimped out by a man known as Rafael. If only she can make it to a colony that has formed of New People elsewhere in Thailand... But, how can she get there without papers, with the roads patrolled by the White Shirts and soldiers? The penalty, if she is caught, is to be “mulched.”
Paolo Bacigalupi possesses mad worldbuilding skills. He doesn’t write about a distant planet but a Thailand of the future and still makes it and its people come alive with realistic descriptions, like that of the megodonts, ten-ton elephant-like creatures with four tusks (sawn off by the Thais), used as a labor source to help generate joules of electricity and for other uses. The feral cats called “cheshires,” who seem to be able to smell blood and show up wherever they suspect a meal is to be found are way cool, as well. They can shimmer and fade out, disappearing from sight like the Cheshire Cat from Alice In Wonderland. The following is a description of them after a megodont working in Lake’s factory goes on a rampage and is subsequently shot and killed, then is butchered for its meat:
They are clever, thriving in places where they are despised. Almost supernatural,
in their tenacity. Sometimes it seems that they smell blood before it is even spilled.
As if they peer a little way into the future and know precisely where the next meal
will appear. The feline shimmers stealth toward the sticky pools of blood. A butcher kicks one away, but there are too many to really fight, and his attack is desultory.
One mark of a great science fiction novel (or any novel) is how well the author explores and develops his characters. Bacigalupi makes his characters believable, well-rounded, and three-dimensional. I didn’t always like all of the actions some of his characters engage in, or their schemes, but I sympathized with them and might well have done the same as they under similar conditions. For instance, the yellow card Chinaman, Hock Seng, is scurrilous, and though he works for Lake, he schemes to break into the company’s safe, steal the secrets there and become wealthy. I wanted to think of him as one of the novel’s villains, but when I read about his past and what led him to do what he does, I just thought of him as being a person placed under very difficult conditions, trying to succeed despite the odds against him.
Two other memorable major characters are the “white shirt” (militia/policemen) known as Captain Jaidee “Tiger” Rojjanasukchai, formerly a muay thai champion, and a close female friend of his, Lieutenant Kanya Chirathivat. They and the other white shirts despise the Calorie Men and the biogenetic multinational corporations that have brought so much death and misery to Thailand. They despise everything about men like Lake. At first blush, to me this made Jaidee and Kanya perhaps interesting but not that likable. However, after Bacigalupi goes into their histories, as with Hock Seng’s, I could also sympathize with them, and see their points of view.
The Windup Girl is a must-read for anyone who calls himself a fan of science fiction, a sprawling, fantastic novel destined to be a classic.