I read this book and wrote this short summary over a week ago. Today as I go to publish it I realised that I have been rethinking many of the big themes and trying to analyse the behaviours of characters ever since. I thus have decided to call this an ‘introduction’ rather than a review- I think it is a book that has started several trains of thought, especially on topics of colonialism and genetic sciences, which should be more thoroughly discussed in a review. Perhaps I will come back to that when my thoughts have had even more time to develop. Unil then, I hope you enjoy this introduction to the future world of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.
The Windup Girl, a scifi novel and winner of several prizes, accompanied me through the last few days of my life. It takes place entirely in a future Bangkok, a city besieged by the rising ocean waters and foreign capitalists. The entire world has fallen into a state of ecological imbalance through human action, partially through extravagant consumption, and partially through the emboldened scientists who began to manipulate genes and engineer new food, species, and playthings.
In the time between modern day and the novels setting the ‘West’ and the ‘Farang’ (foreigners) lost their power over the rest of the world. International trade has collapsed, and the Western nations have gone out in a new colonialist quest to expand their market, to exploit, to create dependants. Standing against these pressures is the Kingdom of Thailand, still ruled by a proud royal family, served by warring government ministries. While the westerners (no longer represented by governments but by GMO food companies) seek to gain footholds in the market and to move the political tide in their economic favour, the Thai lands have become a refuge for the destruction sown everywhere else.
Responsible for the protection of the kingdom is the Environmental Ministry, with its symbolic leader Jaidee, a Muy Thai fighter known as the ‘Tiger’, and his second in command, Kanya. Inside the government the opposing ministry ‘Trade’, is gaining ever more power, however, allowing more Western influence and pushing for international interaction even though the Thais and the Environment Ministry have been very successful in maintaining their own seedbank, modifying their own food, and fighting new waves of disease.
Apart from the important and opposed figures in the government, we meet several farang, trying to secretly serve their companies interests, make a profit and secure future trading opportunities; a refugee trying to rebuild his fortunes after being cast out as neighbouring Malay moved against foreign businessmen, and a genetically modified girl, trained only to serve, abandoned to the sex-industry. As tensions build in the city, foreigners push their luck, a new disease is born and the genetically modified girl ‘Windup girl’ begins to fight her training, the stage is set for dramatic change.
There are so many characters in this web that it is almost frustrating to follow all of them. While the book is undeniably carefully structured and really works to reach the final chaotic climax, I read the first 400 pages with some irritation. All of the new words, creatures, the slow movement of actors plotting, planning and revealing their true colours made reading feel somewhat difficult, burdened. It wasn’t until the last 100 pages when I felt that it began to be really interesting and pay off, as the Windup learned her true potential, the ministries clashed and fights broke out on the streets of Bangkok.
The novel touches on questions of environmental sustainability, of the relationship between genetics and behaviour, on the morality of ‘generipping’ or genetically modifying the world around us, as well as echoes political topics, reflecting the 1st and 3rd world country relationship. In the actions of these characters we see humanity fighting the larger battle against a world adapting to our own forces of destruction. The more the individuals believe they understand the situation, have some level of control or influence, the less power they actually have. The novel also focuses a lot on the motivations and complexities of the characters, asking questions about loyalty, corruption, and human nature. The characters demonstrate both compassion and callousness, playing political battles with violence as well as through economic means and then suddenly showing affection and humanity or morality when we don’t expect them to. While some of their actions might be interpreted as heroic, the book highlights and underlines the weaknesses of its characters, which change their fates, and to a certain extent- the fate of the entire country. All that the action needed was a catalyst; a ‘Windup Girl’.