Friday, July 30, 2010

2010 Hugo, Campbell, and BSFA, 2009 Nebula Winner: THE WINDUP GIRL by Paulo Bacigalupi

My Hugo votes are in (the deadline is this weekend), and we're in the homestretch of our coverage!

In early 2008, high oil prices led to food riots in more than a dozen countries around the world. Paulo Bacigalupi's first novel, The Windup Girl, focuses on these sorts of connections between food and energy within the framework of globalization. In this future dystopia, the world has suffered a "calorie crisis" in which both fossil fuels and food sources have been exhausted by over-consumption, climate change, and genetically modified organisms gone wild. Electricity is a luxury. So is fruit. The automobile is virtually extinct. People depend on genetically modified animals such as mammoth-like "megadonts" to do much of their work. And, there are myriad new killer diseases that can ravage a population.
Bacigalupi sets the action in Thailand, a nation that has survived the worst destructions of the contraction caused by the calorie crisis with some nationalist and sometimes isolationist policies. Yet, it's still vulnerable to the big agribusiness/bioengineering firms of the West, the Calorie Companies. Bacigalupi writes in third person, but he alternately focuses on four interconnected storylines: Anderson Lake is an American "Calorie man" (or economic hit-man) whose duty is to gain access to Thailand's seed bank. Lake's employee, Hock Seng is an ethnic Chinese refugee from Malaysia who has lost everything and will do anything to regain success as a business man. Jaidee and his assistant Kanya work in the Ministry of Environment and try to protect Thailand from foreign business interests and their own government's corruption. Finally, Emiko is a "windup girl" from Japan. She has been genetically modified to serve as a sex slave, and she is hated and horribly abused for her differences. All of the characters face a series of dramatic crises that eventually explode with major geopolitical implications.
The Windup Girl is the heir to Stand on Zanzibar. Bacigalupi takes a set of contemporary problems and an understanding of global politics and projects forward a worse case scenario for a dystopian future. It's a chilling vision, but also a fairly grounded one. That's not to say it's a likely future (most alternative energy sources are inexplicably missing), but much of it is plausible, and thus it has a lot to say about the world we live in.
The characters are very complex - they all do terrible things, and they're all obsessed with their own success or survival. Yet, they also all got moments of compassion and redemption. There was some talk recently on the social science blog Crooked Timber as to whether Bacigalupi's Asian characters fall into stereotypes, and I'll admit to having a similar reaction early in the novel. Hock Seng, especially, seemed like a duplicitous schemer right out of a yellow peril story from a hundred years ago. As the novel continues, though, I do think that Bacigalupi presents some very complex motives and personalities for the characters that pushed them beyond stereotype. It's the kind of book where I didn't necessarily *like* any of the characters, but I had moments of sympathy and understanding with all of them.
Bacigalupi is also a great writer, though there seemed to be more lyrical moments in the first half than the second. Overall, I likes the beginning of the book more than the end. It's such an unremittingly bleak picture that it did begin to drag me down. It eventually begins to feel like more of an anti-GMO, anti-neocolonialism screed than a novel with rich characters and insight into the human condition - the characters still shine, but they also get ground under heel to the point that they almost fade to the background. But, that's true for most of the great dystopian novels.
Despite the bleakness, I can understand why this novel has received the praise and awards that it has. It's a cautionary tale with rich prose that exposes the moral conundrums of global warming, peak oil, overpopulation, and genetic engineering through fascinating characters. The Windup Girl is a pretty clear contender for the best science fiction novel of 2009.
Grade: A-


  1. I just finished this last night (after having it sit on my shelf for months collecting dust as I read garbage from the 60s) and really enjoyed it. I agree that the prose was more colorful in the first half, but I thought the staccato pacing fit the action very well. I also noticed that his adjectives and descriptions became repetitive over time, but that is pretty common.

    I enjoyed all of the characters except for the titular Windup Girl, who bored me to tears and became more of a deus ex machina in the second half than an actual character.

    All in all I feel the Windup Girl is one of the better books I have read that has come out in the last few years, definitely award worthy, but not a classic.

  2. That's a good point with the windup girl herself. She really is the weak point of the novel in several different ways. She's not much more than a plot device.