Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand

Windup Girl The Windup Girl
by Paolo Bacigalupi

Supplied for review by Hachette New Zealand

Reviewed By: Simon Litten
Stephen Litten

The Windup Girl is Paolo Bacigalupi’s first novel, although he has been writing fiction at the shorter lengths (short story to novella) for a few years, and is the co-winner of the 2010 Hugo award; a spectacular achievement for a first time novelist.

The Windup Girl is set in the 23rd century: a time when there is no longer petro-chemicals to fuel the world; where seed companies have engineered biological warfare to ensure that their seed stocks and gene banks are all that the world can rely upon and farm; where xenophobia and bigotry is rife. This is a world where motive power is counted in calories and calories have to be grown in the field. The action of the story plays out in a Bangkok that is protected from drowning by a high sea-wall, and where shipments are made as much by airship as they are by ship.

The eponymous windup girl is a self-aware "doll" created by a Japanese company, imported into Thailand and abandoned when her owner returned to Japan. She, like all the other characters in the book, is struggling to survive in a society where no one can be trusted but all expect trust. All the characters have their public and private faces. Secrets and lies are traded as false coin for the secrets and lies of others.

This was not an easy book to read as it was not a happy, uplifting tale. It was grim and at times bleak, but it was very well written, with finely turned characters who were always following their own agenda and were always true to themselves. In my opinion this deservedly won the 2010 Hugo for best novel – it was a damn fine book, richly and beautifully told.

-Simon Litten

This is a debut novel, set in a quasi-post apocalyptic Thailand. Thanks to the miracles of genetic modification, crops and humans are no longer safe from rogue viruses that have incorporated modified genetic material, resulting in all sorts of plagues and diseases. Genebanks house the raw materials of unmodified foods, and Thailand is one of the last holdouts of pure food; pure in that the Calorie Companies don’t control Thailand’s food production. Anderson Lake has been sent to Bangkok to aid AgriGen in wresting control of the Thais genebanks for use by the company. But it is not just his story. Hock Seng, his company’s plant manager, is a refugee from the anti-Chinese pogrom that overtook Malaysia and he is playing his own game, as are several other minor characters. Woven into the story is Emiko, an abandoned Windup Girl, a Japanese "new person", a genetically modified construct designed to be the perfect compliant employee. Currently she is stuck in a seedy bar in Bangkok, working as a stripper and prostitute. Her situation is perilous – if the Thais find her, she will be thrown in the recycling vats. Anderson Lake takes her as his lover. To make life more interesting, there are two main factions within the Thai administration – the Army and the Environment Ministry, the latter responsible for keeping Thailand genetically safe.

The main protagonists, Lake, Hock, Emiko, and Kanya of the Environment Ministry weave in and out of the thread of the story, which culminates in a minor civil war precipitated by Emiko defending her honour. Alliances change and nothing is quite what it appears. Lake is bent on furthering AgriGen’s position, Emiko on finding safety, Hock wants security and Kanya needs to answer to two masters. The civil war brings survival and provides a satisfying conclusion for most.

This is a brilliant novel, and I can understand why it won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for 2010. The characters are believable, and Thailand makes for a good setting, being sufficiently alien for most Westerners without stretching the imagination beyond breaking point. Bacigalupi’s style is sufficient for the story and he has obviously listened to the advice given to him. A definite page-turner, I devoured the 500+ pages in two days. I look forward to his next offering, only hoping it will be as good.

-Stephen Litten

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