Book Review: The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

This week, I’m reviewing a book which won the Hugo, the Nebula and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award on its publication in 2009. It’s The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi, and it’s fair to say that it comes pretty highly recommended. But will I enjoy it as much as the judges did? Read on to find out.

This review contains an affiliate link to, which will earn me a commission if used, and will help to support independent bookshops.

In a future Thailand, Anderson Lake works undercover as a calorie man for AgriGen. The world has been ravaged by bio-engineered plagues, and the calorie companies compete to sell foods resistant to the various deadly and ever-evolving blights to governments around the world. Lake struggles to keep his mind on the job, however, when he meets the mysterious Emiko, the titular Windup Girl. She lives every day in fear for her life, terrified that the white shirts of the Environment Ministry will take her away and have her destroyed as trash; being one of the bio-engineered New People – contraband in the city – her life is forfeit should she be discovered. Meanwhile, tensions simmer between rival government ministries, with backroom deals, betrayals and conspiracies brewing in the blazing Thai sun.

The Windup Girl is certainly a unique prospect. There are plenty of things which are familiar from other works in dystopian or science fiction literature, but combined, they form something that is one of a kind. There’s a cyberpunk feel to much of it, a statement which is difficult to qualify when there aren’t any computers. It’s something that comes across in the noir, morally grey tone of the novel though, as well as in its somewhat obtuse way of revealing details about the world. Indeed, it’s not until around the halfway point that some of the terms which have been used repeatedly actually receive some explanation. Kink springs, by way of example, are the main source of energy for much of the technology used, be they guns, boats, scooters or otherwise. But how they are supposed to work, and what sets the factory that is intended to serve as a front for Lake’s activities apart from its competitors is never really explained.

If you’re coming for hard sci-fi then, best look elsewhere. Bacigalupi isn’t half as concerned with explaining how his world works technologically as he is with explaining how it works politically, the struggles between the Environment Ministry and the Ministry of Trade taking much of the focus. That perhaps sounds incredibly dry, but actually the back-and-forth power struggle between these two bodies and the people within them is reasonably compelling. Under the command of Jaidee, a former Muay Thai champion, the Environment Ministry is all about breaking heads and impounding cargo, a habit that tends to place them in direct opposition to the Ministry of Trade. Clashes between the two, with their conflicting interests – Trade want to open the country up to outsiders, Environment want to lock it down – is inevitable, and occasionally bloody.

The characters at the centre of the action are varied in their motivations then, if not their morality. Hock Seng, a refugee from Malaysia, is mainly concerned with self-preservation, by any means possible, whilst Lake is all about profit. Jaidee’s second in command Kanya is dutiful yet seems to take no particular pleasure in it. Only Emiko seems guileless, and unfortunately for both her and us, this is a world that will chew up and spit out someone like her – the various despicable uses she’s put to make for extremely uncomfortable reading, although they do engender strong feelings of sympathy for her. It’s a shame that Emiko doesn’t get more to do though; the other characters tend to take centre stage, and their various objectives and amoral stances make them difficult to root for and care about. Their amorality, in fact, seems to serve as the main personality trait for many of them, which isn’t sufficient to make us feel particularly strongly towards them one way or the other.

Undoubtedly the best thing about The Windup Girl is its sense of place though. Bacigalupi’s Bangkok is a seething hotbed of sin and criminality, its tenuous position on the world stage maintained by a government at war with itself and a crown overseen by an overreaching adviser. With oil having run out and sea levels rising, the city is protected by levees watched over by chanting monks, illuminated patchily by the green glow of officially approved methane as food sellers ply their trade. Foreigners like Lake gather in sweaty bars to drink warm whiskey, ice frequently a scarce luxury, as fans beat lazily overhead. Emiko, meanwhile, struggles to even function, her aesthetics impractically designed to cope with the tropical climate. The heat is relentless, the monsoons long overdue – the sticky discomfort of the climate practically sweats out of the pages in a way that’s reminiscent of Ballard’s The Drowned World. It’s a richly detailed backdrop for shadow puppets, in a sense.

With its well-realised world, The Windup Girl is certainly deserving of attention. The moral voids that people said world can make reading a slightly joyless experience, however, their humourless and self-serving personalities miring the reader in a rather depressing story of unpleasant people behaving unpleasantly towards one another, most of whom are difficult if not impossible to care about. Morally ambivalent characters can be a wonderful (and frequently, more believable) thing, but here they’re easily eclipsed by the setting, which hugely overshadows them – both literally and figuratively.

The Windup Girl is published by Orbit. You can order your own copy through this affiliate link.

Currently reading: Afterland, Lauren Beukes
Currently listening: The RItual, Testament

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