“The Windup Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi: A Review.
(This novel is a finalist for the Hugo Award 2010)
“The Windup Girl” is a science fiction novel set in an unspecified future Thailand and Bangkok, perhaps in the late 21st century, when environmental problems have devastated the world, and countries and people fight a bare holding action for survival against virulent and constantly mutating diseases.
The eponymous title comes from the derogatory nickname given to artificial persons of this era, who, in conservative Thailand, are regarded as soulless abominations. To give some of the story away, this particular windup girl kills the regent of Thailand, partly in self defence, precipitating a civil conflict in Bangkok, which results in the flooding of the city.
In short, I was not impressed with this novel. I am someone who enjoys a good technical exposition. I like to know what is happening, and why. Perhaps not to the level of Poul Anderson, who devoted pages to describing the biochemistry of his worlds, or to that of Greg Egan, who devotes pages to abstract discourses of advanced physics, but still, I like to know. None of the background was explained or even revealed in the novel. The details of the environmental collapse are entirely missing, as are the political and technological responses. This, to me would have made the story richer and more credible.
Also, the tech used in Thailand to survive is questionable. In short, power is largely generated by muscle action, be it human or megodont (mutated elephants), and this power is stored in high tech springs, and then released when needed. Ummmm. Would it not simply be more efficient to use the calories more directly, without human (or megodont) intermediaries?
The story itself revolves around a farang, who is a secret agent for an agribusiness, which wishes to ‘secure’ the secret seed bank of Thailand, and to recover a genius level generipper, who is hiding out in the Kingdom. He masks his presence by running a business in Thailand. The background to all of this is a squabble between two rival political factions in the city. The result of this squabble is the destruction of Bangkok, as one of the commanders of the losing side decides to destroy the city by destroying the pumps that hold back the surrounding waters.
More, why did I not enjoy? The story concentrates more on the human side of things, emotions and feeling and so forth and so on. Not entirely my thing. Yet, in comparison, a similar novel, though set in the us of a is “Hot Sky at Midnight” by Robert Silverberg. This novel also wallows in the human emotional side of the destruction of the Earth’s environment, however, I would rate Silverberg’s novel far higher than the “Windup Girl”. Silverberg supplies more background, and more tech than Bacigalupi, and better and more human emotional/interaction detail.
To be fair (and I am a fair person), this is Bacigalupi‘s first published novel, and his quality of writing is high. He describes his world well, his characters shine though. The steamy complexity of Bangkok, with its deep sea of people and events, is revealed in engaging detail. But, the story is not for me. It dragged at times, and I do not believe it is one of those reads I will be reading again.