Review: The Windup Girl, part 1

by Tom Ingram

Every so often the question comes up: how do we evaluate works that are, in whole or in part, morally problematic? It just won’t do to fall back on some kind of naive formalism that takes nothing but the words into account—not the author’s situation, not the work’s context. The virulent racism of Birth of a Nation detracts from its goodness as a film in a rather obvious way, and to simply admire the editing in the absence of any discussion of the racism is disingenuous. On the other hand, it is desirable to keep the discussion focused on artistic merit if we’re not talking specifically about whatever moral defect is at issue. And it’s not an obvious contradiction to have a film, book, or piece of music that is both morally defective and aesthetically good—Wagner, Gesualdo, Conrad, Riefenstahl, Polanski, and others come to mind.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is set in a future Thailand. Using Thailand in particular opens up all sorts of unappealing possibilities including racism, xenophobia, and sexism, and some have argued that The Windup Girl hits on all of these. It would be dishonest to write a review that didn’t discuss these, but I don’t want to make it the main issue. I am concerned about the various social justice causes, but I am not interested in writing about them because, as someone without much knowledge or even an interesting perspective, there’s nothing I can bring to the table. To the extent that I have an audience, they’re not here to read about such things, which they can get in a much better form elsewhere. So I am going to do a two-part review of The Windup Girl: the first part will focus on plot, character, style, and all that fun stuff, and the second part will discuss the moral defects involving racism, xenophobia, and sexism.

So, on to the actual book. Bacigalupi’s novel is more about exploring its setting, a semi-apocalyptic future world, than its people or their struggles. In The Windup Girl, genetic engineering run rampant has ravaged crops. Global warming has pushed the sea level so high that parts of Thailand are threatened by floods if the levees fail. Food is in short supply and at constant risk from rapidly evolving diseases. A handful of midwestern American agricultural companies have a near monopoly on crop seeds designed to be resistant to the diseases—some of which are released by the companies themselves. These “calorie companies” circle like playground drug-dealers around troubled nations, trying to import their goods and get the populace hooked. Thailand resists, using their seedbank and a rogue genetic engineer bought off from the Americans to stay just ahead of the diseases.

While the Environment Ministry attempts to keep the country on this course, thwarting smugglers and driving away representatives of the calorie companies, they face opposition from the Minister of Trade, an ambitious politician whose star is on the rise. He wants to open the country to American imports, with potentially disastrous results. The Environment ministry people must also deal with internal corruption and infiltration from Trade.

Our hero, such as it is, is Anderson Lake (and Palmer), a “calorie man” from one of the American agribusinesses, AgriGen. Lake (and Palmer) is undercover in Thailand, trying to discover how they are managing to produce such sophisticated genetically engineered crops, and incidentally to cosy up to the Trade Ministry and offer them Faustian bargains from time to time. He’s a piece of work, in other words. One of his investigations takes him to a seedy establishment in Bangkok where Emiko, the titular windup girl, is used as a sex slave. She provides him with information, having overheard some Environment Ministry officials speaking in confidence. Anderson becomes smitten with her, and frequently pays the bar owner to let her stay at his apartment instead of going to work.

Emiko is a New Person, a genetically engineered Japanese servant. She’s physically superior to ordinary humans in almost all respects, except that she has fewer and smaller pores—a design choice that her creators made for aesthetic reasons, but which makes her ill-suited for the hot Thai climate. Abandoned in Thailand by her Japanese owner, she was forced into sex slavery for survival, and when she hears of a settlement of free New People in the north, she begins making plans to escape.

As A. L. (a. P.) tries to open up the Kingdom, the Environment Ministry’s forces act with equal vigour to keep it closed down. Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, an influential “white shirt” (the Environment Ministry’s enforcers and soldiers) with a reputation for being unbribable, cracks down on illegal imports, causing Lake and his friends to lose money. This increases his cachet with the sympathetic public, but earns him powerful enemies. The risk of an all-out war between Environment and Trade threatens to tear the country apart.

Environmentalists who are against genetically modified crops can seem a bit silly at the best of times, and downright funny at the worst (e.g., “I don’t want DNA in my tomatoes”). So Bacigalupi manages to avert the obvious pitfall by presenting his material in a sobre, believable, and above all not hootingly stupid fashion. There is a howler about Emiko’s creators using labrador genes to make her naturally docile and subservient, but overall it’s not too bad. I particularly liked the way that people in the novel’s world have come to think about thermodynamics: food is thought of in terms of its calorie content, and workers do not sell labour, they sell the expenditure of their calories, with megodonts (elephants) being more efficient calorie engines than people.

Bacigalupi’s style is mostly unobtrusive, barring a few clunkers here and there. The biggest problem is that he falls prey to the desire to exoticize his prose by inserting foreign words. This turns almost every page into a mess of italics, and since there’s no indication of what, if anything, these words mean, much of the book reads like a hilarious mad lib.

Bacigalupi has dispersed his POV characters Clancy-style to give a good picture of the effect of the book’s events on a wide variety of people. This lets us glimpse his world from several different angles. In terms of thrills, it’s never particularly tense or exciting, even in the all-out civil war at the climax. That sort of thing is really not the point—the book is about the fallen state of humanity, how we got there, and how we might get out. Though anaemic in plot and character, Paolo Bacigalupi’s sci-fi vision is chilling and richly drawn, and brings a certain amount of respectability to its cause.

Is it life-changing? Not really. Does it deserve its Best Novel Nebula over all the other contenders? I really couldn’t say, but it’s not inconceivable that there was something better in its year. But still, The Windup Girl is a memorable and at least moderately important science fiction novel.

That said, there are some caveats and qualifications we can and should attach to that statement. I’ll discuss them in more detail in part 2.