Review: The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

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There are few sure bets in young adult fiction—this is the genre where I learned that book series can be cancelled, holy crow—but when the hugely successful The Hunger Games and Divergent series have it as a common setting, that’s as close as you can get. (Incidentally, these are both series too lazy to have a series title, which bugs me.) But I’ve noticed that young adult dystopias tend to be a little lighter on the worldbuilding. Since the focus is on the story and the characters, the dystopia can be drawn in broader strokes, leading to Divergent’s factions, which can be endlessly picked apart.

Adult dystopias, however, tend to have much more attention lavished on them. (Except in literary fiction like The Road, where, in a similar situation to the young adult dystopias, the intricacies of the setting are not so much the point. Everything’s a circle, people!) This can be partly attributed to good old-fashioned Worldbuilders’ Disease, which finds more patience among adult readers of speculative fiction. (But should it?) But it’s also because adult readers have more of an appetite for politics, economics, and the slew of other topics that the dystopia writer must discuss for us to even buy the dystopia in the first place. I hate to generalize so broadly, but, on the whole, I remember being much less interested in economics as a high school student than as a college student. The dystopias of young adult fiction tend towards timelessness; the dystopias of adult fiction tend towards timeliness.

Which brings us to The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Hugo-award winning novel. (Well, half a Hugo—Bacigalupi shares his 2010 award with China Miéville for The City & the City.) It’s a deft portrait of a future Thailand in a world where the global economy has contracted severely, the environment is threatened by plague after plague, and Thailand has only survived due to its strict isolationist policies. While the back cover copy might have you think the central characters are Anderson Lake, a food production company man, and Emiko, a genetically engineered New Person trapped in a violent form of prostitution, it’s really an ensemble piece, including those in power, like Environment Ministry captain Jaidee, and those without power, like Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee attempting to get back on top in life.

Making it an ensemble piece allows Bacigalupi to organically explore every nook and cranny of this city on the bring of revolution, highlighting everything from the rise of the chesire (a bioengineered cat that completely wiped out the domestic feline) to China’s fall into fundamentalism to the cycle of violence perpetuated by humanity on the brink of extinction. It’s there that The Windup Girl picks up something of a theme: that while the city and humanity frantically attempt to tread water as the world changes, the much-despised New People coming out of Japan might be the answer.

And this is what gives Emiko some closure at the end of the novel. Much of the misery of Bacigalupi’s city is written on Emiko’s body. I picked this for my book club this month, and I fully plan to apologize at our next meeting for accidentally picking something that features so much rape. (It’s written vaguely, because Emiko’s genetic engineering means that she will always physically respond, but she specifically hates it.) And I’m not sure exactly how I feel about that. On the one hand, it makes sense, as it does everything else in The Windup Girl: a new class of genetically engineered humans specifically made to be submissive is going to be exploited in this fashion. On the other hand, Bacigalupi really gets into exactly what Emiko suffers every night at the sex club she’s forced to work in because her very existence is illegal. The second description of the show borders on the sensational, which I found repulsive. And we’re meant to find it repulsive, of course, but I just see this too, too much—a work’s grimdark credentials being proven on the body of a woman.

Ultimately, though, Emiko snaps, and the last chapters of her story are fantastic to read, as she starts deprogramming herself and finally finds a place where she can find peace. The political intrigue of the city—particularly the vicious struggle between the Environment Ministry and the Trade Ministry—are also interesting, but Emiko is the only character whose story can compete with the story of the city. Of course, her story subsumes it, which might explain that…

Bottom line: The Windup Girl uses its ensemble cast to explore Bacigalupi’s twenty-third century Thailand on the brink of revolution, although only Emiko gets a story big enough to compete with that. Unfortunately, this comes with a heaping helping of sexual violence, and I am all burned out on that right now. If you’d like.

I rented this book from the public library.

6 thoughts on “Review: The Windup Girl

  1. Yes the Emiko scenes in the club made me so uncomfortable because they felt leery if you know what I mean. I’ve read quite a bit about this book since I finished it because it stayed (partly because of those scenes and partly because the world building is so interesting) and I know somewhere there’s criticism of how Emiko being engineered for pleasure sits badly with the city’s setting and stereotypes about Asian women. Not sure where I saw it though…

    • I know exactly what you mean. There’s a difference between showing that Emiko, due to her position in society and genetic status, suffers a unique form of sexualized violence, and lingering on it in a very male-gazey way.

      I’ve stumbled across that, too! I also lost the link, which I’m miffed about…

  2. Hahaha, I swear my brain is unable to retain information about Paolo Bacigalupi. Every single time I read a review of one of his books, I go through the following cycle:

    1) “Ugh, I know I should read Paolo Bacigalupi because everyone loves him but isn’t this the book where New Orleans is underwater? I just can’t bear to read that.”
    2) “No! Great! This isn’t that book! It’s not set anywhere near New Orleans!”
    3) “Oh yeah. This is the other one. With lots of sexual violence. Ugh.”

    And then I am primed to see a review of Ship Breaker and think it’s the one with lots of sexual violence. I think I am fated never to read anything by this author, and I should just accept that.

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