The name of William Gibson is one that is, sad to say, too often used in vain. Cyberpunk’s “noir-prophet” has cast a long shadow over the genre and his unique ability to generate functional dystopia is one that many authors (rightly) aspire to emulate. With The Windup Girl Paolo Bacigalupi comes shockingly close to achieving that goal.
That’s a bold statement to make, to be sure, so it is probably worth clarifying that Bacigalupi’s near-future dystopian novel is not really a book about computing or cyberspace. Instead, its about biology.
Set in the city of Bangkok in the middle future, The Windup Girl follows the lives of a number of characters living in a world where much of the world’s energy reserves have been depleted and genetic engineering has reeked havoc with the biology of the world. With modern energy sources scarce, global trade and communication has contracted as more traditional forms of power come back to the fore. Man and animal power are once more king and thus calories, rather than oil, are the real currency of the day.
Life for humanity is made harder by the fact that various genetically engineered viruses and crops have caused great damage to the plant life of the planet. Seeds and seed banks are now incredibly valuable property – especially for the large “agricorps” that continue to tinker with the genetic building blocks of the world.
Delving deep into this world, Bacigalupi presents us with a window into life in future Bangkok through the intertwining lives of a variety of characters. Anderson Lake is a “calorieman” – an agricorp employee masquerading as a factory owner as he hunts for new varieties of fruit and vegetable on the streets of the city. Hock Seng is his factory foreman, a Chinese-Malay haunted by the massacre of his people who knows Lake’s secret. Jaidee and Kanya are soldiers with the Environment Ministry – the people tasked with protecting Bangkok from outbreaks and infection. And then there is Emiko, a genetically created and augmented neo-geisha – the “Windup Girl” of the title – discarded by her previous owner and now working the seedy underbelly of Bangkok.
Bacigalupi masterfully weaves the lives of all these characters together into an overarching story, telling a tale that is as much one of the city as a whole as it is of the people who live there. At times it is not a happy tale, and the author pulls no punches in his description of some the real lows of Emiko’s life and abuse. Here Bacigalupi’s ability to paint vivid pictures with words can make uncomfortable reading, but this is by no means a bad thing. If anything, it makes The Windup Girl an even stronger novel than it could otherwise be.
In plot terms, The Windup Girl also excels. It manages to avoid many of the cliches of the genre, and also teases the reader with enough knowledge to take a guess at what direction the winds in Bangkok are blowing without giving the whole tale away. The ending thus brings both a satisfaction at events guessed correctly, and a few surprises still.
Overall The Windup Girl is an incredibly good read. It captures the feel of Gibson without trying to be Gibson, which is an impressive feat indeed. Bacigalupi may be consciously standing on the shoulders of a giant, but he manages to be his own man as well.