The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Originally published in Dawn Books & Authors.
When you finally begin a book you’ve been excited about for a while, there is often a sudden jolt of despair as you realise the possibility that you have quite possibly built it up too much in your mind. There is always a chance that it’s just not going to be as good as all the reviews say or worth the awards it’s being touted for. There is always the chance of looming, huge disappointment. But you take the chance, because you know that if it’s everything it is meant to be, it may be the sole most satisfying reading experience you’ve had all year. Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is such a book.
Winner of this year’s Nebula Award, Locus Award and the much coveted Hugo Award; it is a rich, brilliant piece of speculative fiction. It’s an instant bio-punk classic - a dystopic vision (as the best speculative fiction often is) of a world ravaged by man made viruses and epidemics that have wiped out much of humanities natural source of food. All fuel is scarce, methane gas is limited and diesel run engines are a nearly extinct wonder in a world that is mostly under water. Everything is measured in ‘calories’: energy is vital, as are the ‘genehacker’ scientists who try to create breeds of fruits, vegetables and cereals that will survive blights like the ‘genehack weevil’ and ‘blisterrust’ and ‘cibiscosis’.AndersonLakeis a ‘calorie man’ who works for an American conglomerate looking to exploit food sources. He is undercover inBangkoktrying to gain access toThailand’s rogue seedbank – the Thai are producing breeds of fruit considered mythic by now, and yetLakefinds fruit immune to epidemics openly sold inBangkok’s markets. What has all this to do with Emiko, the titular wind up girl? Eventually - everything, of course.
Emiko isn’t as much of a lead character as one would initially hope for, but by the end of the book it is clear that she is perfectly placed in every way – and of course, Emiko is possibly the most arresting character in the books varied and well crafted ensemble cast. Emiko is a ‘new person’, a human grown in a lab by Japanese bio-engineers for a nation that does not have enough young people to do physical work too difficult for the older. So they create humans in a lab, ala Brave New World, and alter their core in a number of ways - by adding canine DNA to make them obedient, shrinking their pores to make their skin is smoother, for instance. After the odd mix of both physical, emotional and intellectual changes that are made to the wind ups, they are then raised in a crèche where they are socialized to be assistants, geishas, companions, translators – what have you, to rich, influential Japanese businessmen. The altering of their DNA causes them to have odd jerky movements and a tendency to overheat, rendering it impossible for them to pass for human. Emiko’s existence is tragic for most of the book – she has been left behind in Bangkok by her ‘employee’ who chose to upgrade on his return to Japan, and without the patronage of a rich businessman, she is nothing more than an illegal import. Forced to work as the fetish novelty in a brothel, Emiko dreams of a land where wind ups are free and eventually it is her desperate desire to escape that sends the story hurtling towards its magnificent finale.
The Wind Up Girl is to bio-punk what William Gibson’s Neuromancer was to cyber-punk. Of course, shades of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood also colour parts of Bacigalupi’s debut – essentially both writers are concerned with how the world will change when ‘evolution’ is controlled by scientists who are able to create life exactly as they need it to be. Like Atwood’s fascinating creatures, The Wind Up Girl features some great nuances, like the Cheshire’s – cats so chameleon like that they seem to fade in and out of their surroundings, vanish and reappear, vanish and reappear. Created by a bio-engineer as party favours for this daughter’s birthday when she reached the age of Alice Liddle (the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland), the cats were not created sterile, and instead bred true – taking over all other breeds of domestic cat. Fascinating – and in the hands of a gifted world builder like Bacigalupi, so very, very frightening.
This is speculative fiction at its best; the science behind it either exists or is on the verge of existing. Energy sources collapsing, environmental disasters and genetic engineering mistakes are not fiction anymore. It is also a smart, snappy thriller. There is intrigue and drama; spies and double agents, plagues and diseases, sex and death and evil megalomaniacs in witty conversation God-complexed mad scientists. The Wind Up Girl is perfect and will be talked about for a long, long time.