The Windup Girl
by Paolo Bacigalupi
“We have released demons upon the world...Nature has become something new. It is ours now, truly. And if our creation devours us, how poetic will that be?”
When the world petroleum resources were exhausted and the global economy crashed, when the power crisis constricted mechanics to muscle and springs, when the American companies of WeatherAll and SoyPro and AgriGen decided to subdue their competition with genetic warfare, when they lost control of the mutations and unleashed pandemic after pandemic upon the world, when almost every species became extinct, when the sea rose and swallowed New York and San Francisco and London, even when the world traded hope for despair, Thailand stood firm.
The holy city of Krung Thep has found a tenuous new balance, hemmed in by water and levies, denuded of its sacred bo trees, the streets teeming with kink-spring-powered rikshas and Chinese “yellow card” refugees and the white-shirted agents of the Ministry of the Environment. But like a sacred bo tree beset by ivory beetles, this fragile structure cannot last.
Anderson is a farang, an American outsider, ostensibly in Krung Thep to develop a gigajoule kink-spring that can be used to power mechanical devices. In reality, he is one of the anathematized “calorie men” who seeks Thailand's new genetic diversity for his calorie company’s gene-rippers. Hock Seng, a Chinese “yellow-card” who escaped the genocides of Malaya, serves as Anderson’s second-in-command, but secretly schemes to restore his previous circumstances. The white-shirt Jaidee, the “Tiger of Bangkok,” and his stony-faced lieutenant Kanya set out to reel in the corrupt Trade Ministry through violence and brutality. Emiko is a “windup girl,” a human genetically modified for servitude, but abandoned in Krung Thep by her Japanese creators. Her synthetic origins make her an anathema to the whiteshirts, so she is forced to live in secret, then prostitute herself at night and parade her genetically-produced stutter-stop motions in a freak-show for both Thais and farangs. Initially disparate, these characters’ lives are slowly woven together into a pattern that will unalterably reshape the face of Krung Thep.
The events of The Windup Girl are seen from the perspectives of each of these five characters in turn. They are a flawed bunch, complex and three-dimensional, certainly, but so desperate or selfish or brutal or cowardly that I simply could not warm to any of them. I think that this was, in some ways, the intent: one of the major conflicts of the book is dehumanisation, of the characters’ quests to find a way for the world to see them not as a a farang or a yellow-card or a whiteshirt or a windup, but as a person. As one character thinks,
This is the shape of our world. Tit for tat until we're all dead and cheshires lap at our blood.
The plot, too, is opaque, moving with the same stutter-stop that characterizes Emiko's movements and thereby fueling and inflaming the uncertainty of the world. I might not have been able to empathise with the characters, but I was utterly entranced by the world that Bacigalupi created. I loved his vision of a world powered by gene-ripped megalodonts and hand-wound kink-springs, where our modern technology has been stunted and transformed into treadle-computers and spring-guns. Cheshires, adaptive chameleon cats that started as a joke and ended as a plague, stalk the streets and fade into the background. The breadth of imagination is spellbinding. The Windup Girl features one of the most immersive and realistic-feeling dystopians I have encountered, highlighted by the non-Western setting and the judicious sprinkling of Thai words and phrases.
In some ways, I think the book's title is misleading. The novel was apparently engendered by a short story titled, “The Calorie Man,” and I think this would still be a more fitting title for the book. Yet at the same time, perhaps the windup girl refers not to Emiko, but to something less concrete. All of the characters are, in some sense, windups, twisted and bent to breaking point, then set upon their unshakeable, tragic courses, their actions and reactions as deterministic as a machine. But as with a windup toy, there may be an unexpected rough spot, a loose spring, an unanticipated collision that throws all plans into disarray.
"We are nature. Our every tinkering is nature, our every biological striving. We are what we are, and the world is ours."
I found Ramin Djawadi's Medal of Honor to be an oddly fitting accompaniment to the book.