The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is the all-too-believeable tale of a future reality where the world is ravaged by bioengineered plagues, ruthless “calorie men” and “generippers”, human-caused global warming, and the end of the fossil fuel era. In the midst of this stark setting, a remarkably well-developed cast of characters all struggle to survive and pursue their dreams while post-apocalyptic Thailand descends further into corruption and chaos.
This novel works so well on so many levels. I found the surreal post-apocalyptic setting and the colorful cast of character compelling from the very beginning. As the story progressed, it became clear to me just how fascinating, complex, and meaningful this story is. The technology, ecology, economy, culture, and characters all intersect and interact to create plots and character development that possess a rare combination of both depth and urgency. If I had more spare time, I would have been tempted to read the entire novel in a single sitting. I’m glad I didn’t, though, because there is too much good material here to digest in a single sitting. Fully appreciating the setting, the characters, and the meaning behind it all takes time — but it’s well worth the effort.
The story explores some of the extremely negative potential outcomes of bioengineering. Proponents of bioengineering might very well have a knee-jerk reaction, assuming that the entire novel is just a fear-based screed against the dangers of bioengineering. However, Bacigalupi’s exploration of the topic is surprisingly nuanced and introspective. Yes, there are horrors — an endless parade of corporate-engineered plagues, bizarre bioengineered creatures, and so on. But there are also curiosities and wonders. The author’s presentation of bioengineered horrors is not so much a critique of biengineering itself as it is a critique of the individuals and corporations that would apply the technology of life to the ruthless pursuit of profit and power.
The exploration of human-caused global warming is a less central focus of the novel, yet still a major thread in the weaving of this complex narrative. As an author with an emphasis on climate fiction, human-caused global warming tends to be at the center of the plot of many of my stories. Bacialupi, however, chooses to incorporate it as prominent part of the setting rather than making it the driving force behind the advancement of the plot. This story takes place in a world that is suffering from the consequences of global warming and the end of the fossil fuels era. Simply presenting this as a fact of the setting rather than making it a turning point of the plot actually places a quiet but powerful emphasis on his presentation of the future realities of global warming. It’s just a given; in the future, no one is contesting the existence or effects of global warming. It’s just a reality that everyone has to deal with, reflected in many aspects of their society — from transportation to energy sources and beyond.
The Windup Girl also features several explorations of how race and ethnicity impact identity and basic survival in times of upheaval. As a person of European ancestry living in the United States, it was very interesting (and illuminating!) for me to see the pale-skinned, blue-eyed “farang” (white) characters portrayed as foreign and dangerous. That may sound offensive to some people, but I actually found it to be quite appropriate and a very well-written aspect of the plot and character development. It was also interesting to see the relationships between the native Thais, the Malaysian Chinese, the Japanese, and the bioengineered “windups” or “New People”.
There are some books — especially in the realm of speculative fiction — that I would only recommend to certain audiences. Zombie fiction is for zombie fans; romance novels are for romance fans; and so on. The Windup Girl, however, is a novel that I would recommend to everyone alive today in the early twenty-first century. Some of the technological elements and drastic changes that have taken place in society will seem strange to readers who don’t usually read speculative fiction. However, the importance of the themes explored — and the artful and compelling way in which they are explore — makes this novel a worthwhile read for everyone who cares about the future of life on this planet!