Review: The Windup Girl, Part 2

by Tom Ingram


All right, now that that’s over with, we can discuss the elephant in the room. Bacigalupi has been criticized, sometimes quite harshly, for his depiction of Thailand and his handling of gender issues (particularly with respect to Emiko). I didn’t know about these criticisms before I bought the book (which I knew almost nothing about at the time), and hearing about them before reading the book predisposed me not to like it. While The Windup Girl is too good to dismiss out of hand, but the critics are right on pretty much every count and it would be irresponsible to write a review without addressing their issues.

So here’s an overview of the problematic aspects of The Windup Girl. I will try to avoid much personal comment, since there are some issues on which I’m so hopelessly uninformed that there’s no point attempting to defend a position. In several of these cases it’s not clear to me where the line between valid plot device and racism lies, and in those cases I’m just going to describe facts about the book and point out my concerns.

There are five significant viewpoint characters: Anderson Lake (and Palmer), Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, Kanya Chirathivat, Emiko, and Tan Hock Seng. That’s two women and four non-white characters (two of whom are Thai). There are a number of female characters of varying significance (and the book passes the Bechdel test), but I still felt as if the men got almost all the significant actions.

A. L. (a. P.) is the white American calorie man. His portrayal is generally villainous, fluctuating between “conflicted” and “cackling”. It’s pretty difficult not to be appalled by his overall goals, and in interpersonal interactions with the Thai and Chinese characters he’s condescending and unpleasant. That said, he fills the role of the protagonist. He’s introduced at the beginning, dies at the end, and is involved in all the significant plot events in the middle. His death is karmic, but he has more chapters than any other character.

Jaidee is the closest thing the book has to a straight-ahead hero. I was really beginning to like him, but he dies about halfway in. His partner Kanya turns out to be more significant throughout the book, and she is portrayed as a troubled, semi-corrupt hero, an inevitable fixture of the dystopian setting. She survives through the whole book. While she’s not morally pure, she’s much more sympathetic than Anderson. I would estimate that she is the third most prominent character in the book after Anderson and Emiko, and her importance increases toward the end.

Hock Seng is a tricky case for me. He clearly draws on the crafty Chinaman stereotype, and in that sense his character is unpleasant. However, his resourcefulness in the face of long odds puts him among the book’s more likeable chracters. In a ‘verse where just about everyone is an amoral opportunist, is specifically making the old Chinese man an amoral opportunist an instance of racism? I don’t know, and I’m not sure where the line is drawn. He also displays some other stereotyped Chinese traits, such as a disdain for female offspring—he calls them “daughter-mouths”—and an obsession with his clan. These seem harder to defend.

Emiko is the titular Windup Girl, a test tube-bred New Person from Japan clearly meant to evoke both the geisha and the sex doll. Through some combination of conditioning and genetic tinkering, she has been rendered instinctively obedient, though she and her kind are resistant to human diseases and physically superior in almost every way. She is raped on at least two occasions, and the climax of the book occurs after she snaps and murders her rapists with her bare hands. Both the Japanese angle and the gender angle seem problematic to me. In fact, she is the source of most of the novel’s “ism” problems, and despite her place in the title is really secondary to the novel’s progression. If she had been handled in a more conventional Asimovian way (or omitted entirely), we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion at all. More than anywhere else, Bacigalupi dropped the ball here.

As for the setting, I think it’s important to keep two facts in mind when thinking about this novel: (1) it’s set in a dystopian world, and characters and events have to follow from that for the novel to make sense; and (2) it will be read and understood not in the context of its own world, but in our world, and to some extent it will have an effect on our world. Bacigalupi’s setting clearly has an affinity with dystopian authors like William Gibson (the comparison is made on the cover of my copy). The run-down nature of his Thailand follows logically from the world he built for the story. For what it’s worth (which may well not be much), he included a disclaimer to that effect in the acknowledgements and pointed the way to a number of actual Thai authors (I can say nothing about the value of this list).

However, when you look at this depiction in the context of modern Western culture and the image of Thailand that pervades our media, the whole thing starts to look a bit icky, disclaimer or no. The grittiness and general mistrust (not to mention rapiness) of Bacigalupi’s dystopian setting take on a very different character when they are implicitly meant to be emblematic of the actual Thailand, even if there’s a simple and innocent in-universe justification for them.

I went through the whole book vaguely suspecting that the use of Thai language and culture are inaccurate, though I know too little about Thailand to say anything beyond that. Bacigalupi uses italicized Thai words to lend an exotic flavour to otherwise ordinary English dialogue, and it gets quite unpleasant—like the standard Mexican character who speaks flawless English but can’t quite manage to say “thank you” instead of “gracias”, because he’s foreign, you know. The frequent use of the submissive gesture of the wai and shoehorned references to Thai folktales has the effect of making some of the Thai characters seem like comic not-quite-humans.

While it’s important that these concerns are made known wherever the book is discussed, I don’t think it’s necessary to discard the book and Paolo Bacigalupi as an author. It doesn’t require any outright malice to write a book like The Windup Girl. All these problems could have arisen out of the best of intentions, with the self-righteous thoughtlessness that is the lot of straight white men from rich countries. This just goes to show that we must be careful what we do with the best of intentions.