The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi’s debut novel, is the kind of future dystopia story that is all the more disturbing because it is plausible. Set in the near future, in a world where bio-engineered plagues have wiped out the world’s food sources–making plague-resistant bio-engineered foods necessary to keep the world fed–and the age of petroleum power is gone, it is easy to read this novel and think “I can see this happening.”
There are so many things about this novel that I liked, it is difficult for me to articulate. The writing is beautiful to read: descriptive, tight, and moving. The prose describes a setting one can almost reach out and touch without devolving into excessive description that begs the reader to skim through for the point. The characters are believable, multi-faceted, and appealing, so even though their personal goals are often at cross purposes, I had a difficult time actively rooting against anyone. As a corollary to that idea, there is no hard-and-fast villain here, no distinct white or black hat. Each character just is, and it is the reader’s own take on the characters’ goals and actions that will decide the idea of right or wrong. It’s nice to read a novel that has a somewhat ambiguous ending: hopeful for some people, devastating for others, and for one, wholly unresolved. It is the perfect conclusion to this story, because canned ‘happily ever after’ and ‘everyone dies’ endings would have been a disservice to a complicated tale.
Bacigalupi has done an excellent job of writing the differing perspectives of several different characters, weaving the different perspectives and stories of the characters through the novel’s narrative, giving each character not only a unique voice, but believable attitudes, strategies for meeting challenges, belief systems, and cultural cues that are as varied as the characters’ backgrounds suggest. Maybe it sounds strange that I am excited about this, but too often I see characters that are supposed to be from different cultures, yet they act–and react–the same. This is not a problem here; each character’s personality and (cultural) perspective is unique.
Reading The Windup Girl felt, in many ways, like reading a series of juxtapositions: lush, gorgeous prose next to a brutal depiction of reality; a Western company man next to the Thais and Chinese surrounding him in Bangkok; bio-engineered foodstuffs next to the fruit of carefully preserved seed stock. The City of Divine Beings (Bangkok), as described here is the playground of the elite and the cramped tenements of refugees and the poor, deliciously rich in history and tradition and on yet the cusp of great change.
In sum, I loved this book. It isn’t an easy read, and it isn’t something that will only momentarily be entertaining. The people, the place, and the possibilities will stay with you. Anderson Lake, Emiko, Hock Seng, Jaidee, Kanya, the city itself–they will all capture your attention and demand to be heard. This is the sort of thoughtful, provoking narrative that encapsulates not only the best of what science fiction can be, but the best that fiction–literature–can be. The stories that really last, the ones we feel we need to read over and over, are these.
The Windup Girl has won the Locus Magazine award for best first novel, and the Nebula Award for best novel. It is also nominated for a Hugo Award.
Would you judge me if I told you I bought this half because of the pretty cover art? It really stood out on the shelf at the book store.