The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi
Nightshade Books, 2009
There is a lot that’s good about Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel The Windup Girl.
There is a lot that’s wrong with it, too.
The Windup Girl won the 2009 Nebula Award. I understand why. This is a novel of Big Ideas, a bold move and an interesting premise. Bacigalupi’s reach exceeds his grasp, but a flawed, risky work of art often has more value than a success that played it safe.
I recommend The Windup Girl but I didn’t exactly like it. I understand why it won the Nebula, but I don’t necessarily agree.
In a vividly realized Bangkok of the future ( 100-150 years from now) Anderson Lake, an undercover “calorie man” who works for the mega-conglomerate AgriGen, schemes to get access to the rumored Thai seedbank, believed to hold genetic material of vegetables and fruits long extinct, which the Thai are cautiously reintroducing. AgriGen and one or two other companies have a monopoly on the world’s seeds and grains; and their stock grows more and more susceptible to plagues and opportunistic viruses like blister rot. This bio-homogenization has led to starvation around the world. The calorie companies are in a constant race with the viruses, and constantly searching for new (old) material they can mutate and patent. Lake’s mission criss-crosses with the machinations of Hock Seng, an ethnic Chinese Malaysian refugee—a “yellow card” with precarious immigration status—and Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, a Thai folk hero who works for the Environment Ministry.
In this post-petroleum world, computers are powered by foot treadles and kink-spring technology creates mechanical batteries. Lake uses a kink-spring factory as his cover, and Hock Seng is the factory manager. Lake is on the trail of a new fruit he found in the market, and in the course of his search, he meets Emiko, the “windup girl,” a genetically engineered sex-toy, programmed to be beautiful and submissive, longing to be free. Emiko is a vat-grown geisha trying to be Pinocchio.
Other reviews, including this excellent one at Strange Horizons, have explored the weakness of Emiko as a character more eloquently than I can. She was not a plausible person to me. Her alleged struggle between genetic programming and her desire for free will never rang true. Despite the name of the book, the “windup girl” is not a very important character. She isn’t even much of a secondary character. Emiko is a toy to the characters around her who exploit her, and a tool to the author, who needs her to do one particular thing near the end of the book. Her apparent struggles, shown through the same interior monologue she repeats several times during the course of the book, are unconvincing.
This sounds as if it is a problem with character, and I did not find most of the characters to be compelling, but the real problem is with the plot. The first half of the book is slow, and the characters are passive. Things are put in place that are needed later in the book, but they are disconnected from the actions of our protagonists. The only exception is Jaidee. Jaidee’s actions have consequences and resonance, and that may be why he is the most memorable character, and seems to be the most effective, even when he fails.
In the first thirty pages of the book, Lake shoots a rampaging elephant-mastodon. This is a wild, breath-taking, suspenseful sequence. Then Lake does nothing much else for a very long while. He is supposed to be secretly looking for the origin of the mystery fruit. Instead, he hands them around like oranges. He goes to the bar where the foreigners—the farang– hang out, sips warm whiskey and complains about sipping warm whiskey. He could pretend to run the kink-spring factory, but if he did he would discover something, so he doesn’t. Hock Seng engages in a lot of interesting activities that highlight his growing desperation and his hatred of the White Devils, but do not advance the story.
This slack plot, so early in the book, when so many characters are being introduced, left me with too much time to think, to grow irritated with Emiko, who seems not tragic and noble but merely whiny. Despite her constant internal protestations that she would like to be “free,” the book slants her story in such a way that it is clear she does not want freedom. She just wants a new position, a better patron. Anyone would.
These problems continue for more than half the book. Suddenly, on page 207, a strong woman character emerges. Suddenly, betrayals happen. Suddenly, the streets are alive and dangerous. Suddenly, fortunes are reversed, and reverse again, and things start to happen. People get shot. Things explode. The book lumbers off the runway and wobbles into flight.
The book tends to read like three separate novellas that were broken into chunks and interleaved. The actions of our three main characters, all male, should create some tension and opposition for the others, and they don’t. Bacigalupi is primarily a short-story writer, with several stories written in this universe, and I put some of this down to inexperience with the longer form. There is enough here to reassure me that we will not see these kinds of structural problems in his later novels.
I will not, however, let him off the hook for the disparity in his treatment of his characters. The book is very brutal, with cruel deaths, beatings riots and massacres. The book has a lot of violence, much of which happens offstage or is described after the fact. A beloved (male) character is killed and his body horrifically mutilated. The reader discovers this through the safe, distancing veil of another character’s recollection. A mahout is crushed into jelly by the rampaging megodont, but we don’t see it. Losses in battle, stacks of bodies after a riot, are given a phrase or two, sketching in the horror without lingering.
The exception is the depiction of the twin rapes of Emiko. These happen almost as bookends, the first very early in the book, the second close to the end. We understand that rape is a nightly occurrence for Emiko. It is, in fact, part of the floor show at the club her master owns. The first rape scene is described in words that are intentionally erotic; water glistens on her naked skin like jewels, she bends like a willow, her breasts are described. As the two-and-a-half-page scene progresses the language becomes a little harsher but still eroticized. This is not accidental and not meant to be strictly salacious. The author is trying to tell us something about Emiko. Two hundred pages later, in the same club, Emiko is raped again. Again, the scene lasts two and a half pages, with exact, precise physical detail. The language is rougher here, and Emiko’s emotions are more consistent. Both scenes happen in real time, not softened as flashback or recollection. Emiko is not protected from the horror the way the male characters are.
The point of these two scenes is supposedly to show us the difference in Emiko’s reactions. In fact, the second scene is the catalyst for the thing Bacigalupi needs Emiko to do in order for the plot to work. Still, this much careful, attentive detail, and this much space, twice? It’s disturbing. If we had seen character growth in Emiko, if Emiko’s next act really were to assume control, rather than lose control, the second rape would seem a little less like pornography, and maybe the first rape would, too.
The Windup Girl is a book worth reading for the world Bacigalupi built, and the story he tries to tell. It was a bold move and an interesting premise. The Nebula judges, however, had another book with a unique world that was a bold move with an interesting premise. That book was Palimpsest. Palimpsest took chances, and it succeeded without the seams showing. So why didn’t it win? I have an idea. I think Palimpsest’s literary virtuosity intimidated the judges. Windup Girl is more accessible; an easier read.
So go read it. If you like war-games and boys’ club science fiction, you’ll like it better than I did. Get your conservative friends who don’t understand what the fuss about climate change or genetically modified food is all about to read it too. Then be prepared for a lively discussion that’s going to go on late into the night.
UPDATE: Jeremy Lassen of Nightshade Books left a comment below explaining how the Nebula winners are chosen. It’s not a panel; the entire membership votes. He thinks it’s unlikely that they all fled en masse from the terror of a literary novel and took refuge in a more science fictional book, and I certainly see his point.