Modern Classic: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup Girl is essential reading for the early 21st century.  It deals with incredibly important themes in an accessible and very engaging fashion.  The characters are all well fleshed out, the story is plausible, and the setting is exotic enough for the reader to never feel too comfortable.  I would go as far as to say that the book is prophetic, and it’s up to the readers to make sure this particular prophecy doesn’t come to pass.

The book follows several characters in the new capital of Thailand.  Global warming has decimated the planet, fuel sources are scarce, and crops are ravaged by diseases.  Due to the global warming effects and the lack of fossil fuels, much of the technology relies on old tech: sails, dirigibles and massive springs, which are wound up by people or genetically engineered animals.  However, the greatest threat comes from the lack of genetic diversity.  Large food conglomerates had their crops bioengineered to the point where the companies are in an arms race against new diseases, which kill new varieties of crops within a few years of their release.  These companies are also the new colonizers: they dominate third world countries by selling them seeds that work for a while, but which don’t germinate, so that the local governments have to buy more every year.  Thailand is an exception: it’s one of the countries that created a seed bank with enough genetic diversity to produce their own food.  The kingdom is also isolationist: getting goods inside is risky and requires bribes, and foreigners operating within the country face lots of restrictions.

One of these foreigners is Anderson Lake, a spy for one of the large food conglomerates.  He is on the search for new, genetically diverse food.  People in his position are universally despised and killed on sight, so he presents himself as a director of a spring factory.  He catches the rumor of the Thai seed bank, as well as one about a renegade genetic engineer who used to work for his company, until he switched allegiance to the Thai.  His goal is to secure the food bank and bring the engineer back to the company.  Along the story, he meets Eniko, a “windup girl” – a genetically engineered Japanese woman – who was discarded by her owner and works as a stripper and prostitute.  In her job, she is severely abused by those who don’t consider her a human being.  Lake is fascinated by her and slowly develops feelings towards her.  Parallel to Lake’s story is that of his secretary: Hok Seng, an old ethnic Chinese refugee from Malaysia where he survived the genocide against his people.  He used to be a wealthy merchant; now he is trying to scam as much money as possible from Lake to restart his life.  He comes with the plan to steal the blueprints for the spring construction and exchange them for a trading ship, to build up a merchant empire again.   While this is taking place among the foreigners, infighting among the two Thai ministries, of Trade and Environment, leads to the downfall and death of a firebrand fighter against foreign imports, Jaidee.  He’d been popular among the people before, but his death made him a martyr.  His second in command, Kanya, succeeds him, but only she and her real boss know that she’s been a spy for the Trade Ministry, embedded deep in the Environment Ministry.  She struggles with her conscience for betraying Jaidee and questions her loyalty to the Trade Ministry when it gets into open military conflict against Environment.

Things come to a head when Eniko kills the protector of the child queen and the true force behind the throne.  This is being used as a pretext for open warfare between the Environment and Trade ministries.  Lake, who had been covertly arming Trade in exchange for future access to the seed bank, is kidnapped and tortured for the killing, and when he proves his innocence, he realizes that Trade moved ahead of schedule, without help, cutting him out of the deal.  Eniko is also on the run as the prime suspect.   Hok Seng sees his entire plan fall apart, as all his hidden money burns away during the fighting, and the blueprints are taken away from him without compensation.  Kanya is busy trying to find the source of a new plague that is killing people (and which also infected Lake, unbeknownst to him), when she needs to return to help defend the Environment Ministry.  When the dust settles, Trade is victorious, Kanya, the Trade spy is named the new Environment Minister, Lake strikes a new deal with Trade for the seed bank and Hok Seng finds new employment with Lake’s employer.  Kanya, however, finally gives way to her conscience, kills Lake’s people in the seed bank and has the seeds take away to a new hiding place.  She then floods the capital by blowing up the levies that protected it from the sea.  Lake succumbs to the plague, and Eniko ends up living alone in the now flooded city.

Bacigalupi spins one of the most compelling stories I’ve read in recent years.  His world after global warming is bleak indeed, and his description of Sars-like plagues strikes very close to home these days.  However, it’s the lack of genetic diversity that makes this book so prophetic.  We are already seeing it today, with bananas facing extinction after genetic varieties were bred out of them.  This issue is so important that at least one seed bank has been already established, and more may be on the way.  The author creates a very plausible world that is ravaged by plagues, and where a handful of companies manages to enslave entire nations through food.

The worldbuilding is even more compelling thanks to its exotic setting.  It was different enough from my own life that I could not become complacent: I had to pay attention all the time, to get all the nuances.  Thailand in the book is very consistent, and all people act believably.  There is rampant corruption, but it’s considered a way of life, and everybody bribes everyone else.  So, when one party stops taking bribes, the entire system breaks down and eventually leads to civil war.  One very compelling element of the worldbuilding is the description of a small group of foreigners who are trying to strike it rich in Thailand.  They meet in a rundown bar to talk about their latest exploits.  This scene is straight out of books and movies from the 1940s and 1950s where foreign adventurers are trying to scam the “savages” in Africa, while silently or not so silently suffering the climate.  Along with the retro technology, this brings the feeling of the book a hundred years into the past, instead of insisting that the reader feels like in the future.  This way, Bacigalupi is able to convey the effect of climate change: a slow descend into old, simpler times where people are poor and die young.

Despite the fact that all protagonists serve primarily as vehicles through whose eyes the reader sees a much greater story of environmental collapse and the smaller story of power plays within the Thai kingdom, all characters are very well fleshed out.  One thing that struck me is that all the protagonists are likable.  They have their own motives, and they follow them in all their actions.  Nobody is purely evil for evil’s sake, and even the most despised character, Lake, is human who believes that his work is ultimately good for the people.  They are all swept up in a grand tragedy, which may pit them directly against each other, but most of the times they just coexist in the same time and space, with parallel stories.  Even the occasions when their paths intersect seem natural and logical, and not forced.

The only criticism I may have of the characters and of the book in general is the story of Hok Seng.  Seng was a wealthy Chinese merchant who lost all his possessions and his family during an ethnic pogrom, and now he is scheming to rebuild his trading business.  He skims from money intended for bribes and squirrels it away.  He hatches complicated plots to steal trade secrets and sell them.  He intends to double-cross his employer to gain economic advantage.  His stash of money is destroyed, and his plots always turn to naught, and he always barely escapes with his life.  His story draws such strong parallels with old caricatures of “conniving” European Jews that I felt uncomfortable around this character.

Despite this small shortcoming, The Windup Girl is a superb book.  It explores very real ecological hazards that go far beyond the usual threat of global warming, but which are just as real and even more dangerous.  The story takes place in a vibrant, very well fleshed out society, with a cast of characters I could not dislike.  The storyline is compelling, and the writing is well polished.  This novel was a genuine pleasure to read, and I urge everyone to give it a try.

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