The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Night Shade Books, San Francisco, 2009
Borrowed from the library.
I’m not sure how to describe this book. Speculative fiction? Science fiction literature? Genre lines are beginning to blur all over the place. I stand up and cheer. Maybe it is because I have read science fiction since I got my first library card and have always been angered by the very high walls separating “genre” fiction from “true” literature.
The Windup Girl takes place in a future very easy to imagine. Paolo Bacigalupi has a deep understanding of present-day agricultural, biological and genetic science, mixed with knowledge of corporate greed, peak oil and climate change. He has created a world humans could inhabit within the next few centuries. It is a brutal, plague ridden world, devastating and frightening in its possibility. The writing is beautiful.
As they ease around the bare branches of the tree, the khlong taxi’s passengers all make deep wais of respect to the fallen trunk, pressing their palms together and touching them to their foreheads.
Jaidee makes his own wai, then reaches out to touch the wood, letting his fingers slide over the riddled surface as they pass. Small bore holes speckle it. If he were to peel away the bark, a fine net of grooves would describe the trees death. A bo tree. Sacred. The tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. And yet they could do nothing to save it. Not a single varietal of fig survived, despite their best efforts. The ivory beetles were too much for them. When the scientists failed, they prayed to Phra Seub Nakhasathien, a last desperate effort, but even the martyr couldn’t save them in the end. From pages 79/80.
In Bangkok, a city surrounded by huge walls built to keep out the raising sea, governmental and economic power is split between two agencies, with bribes and graft rampant and violent confrontations a daily occurrence. The world has been through expansion and collapse and Thailand is fighting to protect itself from deadly plagues, agricultural devastation and corporate “calorie” men bent on controlling every food source on the planet. It is hot, there is no oil and the Japanese have perfected genetic engineering.
The story is told from many points of view by characters that are deeply flawed. Anderson Lake, a corporate calorie man searching for a hidden seed bank. Jaidee, the Tiger of Bangkok, top inspector for the Ministry of the Environment. Emiko, a New Person, dumped by her master when he heads back to Japan.
A women selling Environment Ministry-certified sticks of slice papaya watches her suspiciously. Emiko forces herself not to panic. She continues down the street with her mincing steps, trying to convince herself that she appears eccentric, rather than genetically transgressive. Her heart pounds against her ribs.
Too fast. Slow down. You have time. Not so much as you would like, but still, enough to ask questions. Slowly. Patiently. Do not betray yourself. Do not overheat. From page 103.
And then there is the generipper, Gibbon.
“Everyone dies.” The doctor waves a dismissal. “But you die now because you cling to the past. We should all be windups by now. It’s easier to build a person impervious to blister rust than to protect an earlier version of the human creature. A generation from now, we could be well-suited for our new environment. Your children could be the beneficiaries. Yet you people refuse to adapt. You cling to some idea of a humanity that evolved in concert with your environment over millenia, and which you now, perversely, refuse to remain in lockstep with.
“Blister rust is our environment. Cibiscosis. Genehack weevil. Cheshires. They have adapted. Quibble as you like about whether they evolved naturally or not. Our environment has changed…” From page 243.
Bacigalupi’s writing is intricate and rich, full of cultural and political detail. He knows where we are as a species and can envision our possible future. I am reminded of William Gibson and Ian McDonald. I am reminded of Pris in Bladerunner.
I must warn you, there are terrible scenes of violence and sexual assault in this novel, but none of them are gratuitous. As I struggled through them I understood the reasons why Bacigalupi wrote them. In the end he offers his readers new possibilities. I think The Windup Girl is a fantastic book, and that it deserves a Hugo or a Nebula, maybe even both.