The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
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.