The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

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The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A dystopian thriller set in post-oil Thailand following environmental meltdown that pits Western trade influences against Eastern environmental isolationism. Is this the future of genetic food modification?
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 544 Date: December 2010
Publisher: Orbit
ISBN: 978-0356500539

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Although only recently released in paperback in the UK, Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl has been gaining considerable critical acclaim across 'the pond'. Set in a future version of Thailand, it's an interesting take on the environmental meltdown scenario that has garnered it a couple of science fiction awards (the Hugo and Nebula awards) and was named as the ninth best fiction book of 2009 by Time magazine. No less than three of the review extracts used by the publishers in this edition liken Bacigalupi to William Gibson. High praise indeed. Does it rise to these expectations?

For a start, you can see where reviewers are coming from with the Gibson line. Like Gibson, Bacigalupi sets his work in the near future and at the heart of this science fiction tale is a thriller story. It's not unreasonable to claim that fans of Gibson might be interested in this book. But that sets expectations high and I couldn't help that feel that the thrice-mentioned comparison perhaps does more harm than good. For me, this isn't in Gibson's league in terms of writing. At least not yet. Don't get me wrong, there's a lot that's right with this book, but it doesn't have Gibson's panache yet although there is promise of an interesting writer and I would certainly read future works by him.

The scene is a dystopian Thailand (why Thailand, I'm not sure but it lends a pleasing level of exoticism to the book) set somewhere in the not too distant future. Our current age is referred to as the Expansion. We are now in the Contraction. Energy resources are used up. We don't seem to have mastered solar, wind or wave energy now and power is largely provided by genetically modified elephants (have you ever noticed how obsessed science fiction writers are with elephants? Keep an eye out for how many have some kind of trunked animals) who wind battery-like springs. Sea level has risen - the city is only afloat thanks to a system of dykes - and food supply has been ravaged by genetic engineering with agri-businesses from the West blighted with frequent horrible diseases. It's not all together clear if this is intentional or not. It's not a nice place. It's a well thought out scenario though and there's power battles going on between the Trade department who want to deal with the outside world and the Environment department who favour an isolationist stance.

The book features plight of several people. There's the Western Anderson Lake who secretly works for one of the hated agri-businesses who wants access to a stored government seedbank. Anderson Lake sounds like the result of that game where you make your CNN name by transposing your last name with your first name. Throughout the book he's referred to as Anderson - OK, that's fine as an editorial choice, but there's no consistency. Another Western character Richard Carlyle is referred to throughout as Carlyle. A minor point, I know, but irritating (to me, at least).

We also follow the journey of Anderson's (or Lake's) plant manager at the spring factory he uses to hide his real intention. Hock Seng is a Malayan Chinese and therefore an illegal immigrant. He's kind of in it for himself. Then there's the two Environment agents, at least one of which may not be all that they seem. And then, of course, there's the Windup Girl. What's a Windup Girl, I hear you ask? She's a Japanese New Person - a genetically engineered being created to serve who has been left behind by her former master and now hides out in a gentlemen's club (I use the term loosely) where she is ritually abused. Of course, she's beautiful and subservient - she's a science fiction cyborg for goodness sake! And so, needless to say, she will have a big part to play in the outcome.

There are a few strands that don't quite follow (who is responsible for what happens to one character's wife is still a mystery to me) but for the most part it's well thought out and cohesive, if a bit dark. Perhaps that's the reason for my luke warm reaction to the book - there's very little clever humour that is a feature of people like Gibson. (I don't want to go on about the Gibson comparison as I'm quite sure the author never made any claim to comparison but, in my defence 'they started it'). Christians are now known as Grahamites (in a humourous reference to Billy no doubt) and there's a species of genetically modified cats known as Cheshires. These have no relevance to the story and yet there are constant references to them throughout. In fact there is a fair bit of repetition, particularly in the first half of the book - perhaps a slightly more aggressive edit would have tightened this up a bit to the benefit of the book.

My biggest frustration was the stories that weren't told though. Anderson remains fairly enigmatic throughout but I wanted to know more about the agri-business shenanigans in the West. Yes I get that they want to trade, and want new gene pool material, but what else is going on there? How did Anderson get here? And then there's the fantastic character of Gibbons who is some gene hacking guru hidden away by the state having fled the West. Now he has a story to tell, but we learn next to nothing about him, other than his new-found passion for Lady Boys.

It's a good book, and entertaining enough, but it's one of those books that is frustratingly close to being really very good indeed, but it doesn't quite get there.

Our thanks to the kind folks at Orbit Books for inviting the Bookbag to review The Windup Girl.

Before the next William Gibson there was the original - do check out Pattern Recognition by William Gibson or Zero History by William Gibson - you won't regret it. Or for a more space-oriented sci fi fix, there's not much better than Surface Detail by Iain M Banks (also featuring beautiful, subservient cyborgs and trunk-based beings - I rest my case).

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