Review – The Windup Girl (novel)

16 January, 2011

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is a science fiction novel set in a dystopian (and near post-apocalyptic) future.  The world is in meltdown from global warning, the calorie-companies (agri-business megacorps) have released bio-engineered blights and tailored bioweapons to destroy rival crops, there is no more petroleum, it is the age of contraction.

The book is set in Bangkok, Thailand being one of the few countries that has remain outside of the calorie companies’ grasp.  Several stories are intertwined: that of Anderson Lake, a calorie man working to find new genetic material for his company.  Emiko, the ‘windup girl’ of the title, one of the genetically constructed Japanese New People, abandoned in Bangkok, she is enslaved and surviving by sex work.  Along with Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee from Malaysia, from where he fled after his family was slaughtered by Muslim extremists.  And Jaidee Rojjanasukchai and Kanya Chirathivat, members of the Thai ‘White Shirts’, agents of the Environmental Ministry tasked with protecting the Kingdom from foreign infestations of all forms.

It is an odd world with carbon rationing (imposed by whom?) yet coal and methane are used for power but primarily it is a world run by transferring human or animal power (calories) into power (joules) used directly or stored in kinksprings.  But there is no sign of biofuels, solar, nuclear, wave or wind power though Chinese hydro-power is mentioned.  It is a world where ‘gene-ripping’ and genetic modification of plants on a massive scale is practiced, the Japanese breed New People to make up for their lack of children, yet the major power for Bangkok is provided by megodonts (genetically modified elephants).  The technologies just do not seem to mesh for me (but that if often a problem I have with post-apocalyptic setting).

The story is interesting switching between multiple viewpoints to move through the plot which blends hunting for new genes, politics, and revolution along with simple survival for some of the characters.  It is well written but by the later section of the book, the characters are being carried along by events and the perspective on what is happening is very limited, much of the action taking place off stage, which may be accurate of how such things play out but it is not very satisfying.

Ultimately though, the central background villains of the piece, the calorie companies, are simply unbelievable.  Yes, megacorps tend to get away with what they can, but if one of them started releasing bioweapons, even ones that targeted crops, their leadership would be up against the wall in record time.  Some things are just not tolerated.  While it makes for an interesting world, it does not ring true.

The world of the Windup Girl does provide interesting inspiration for near future gaming, it is an almost post-apocalyptic world with Japan seeming to be a near-cyberpunk haven among the wreckage of the contraction.  Calorie companies playing genetic chess with bioweapons and countermeasures, each side generipping to try and get ahead of the other.  The possibilities for a genepunk (for lack of a better name) games are endless.

One last comment/warning, the scenes of Emiko’s degradation at the hands of her fellow sex workers and clients make for brutal reading.


  1. I usually do OK with dystopian fiction, but I just couldn’t get into The WindUp Girl. I felt like Bacigalupi was bashing me over the head again and again and again (and then some more!) with Emiko’s programming and the terrible turns her life had taken. after 100 pages I took it back to the library.

    • Fair enough. Bacigalupi is a little heavy handed at times with some of his themes.

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