The Windup Girl is the award winning dystopian vision by Paolo Bacigalupi.
Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen's calorie representative in Thailand. Under cover as a factory worker he combs Bangkok's street markets in search of foodstuffs long thought to be extinct. There he meets the Windup Girl - the beautiful and enigmatic Emiko - now abandoned to the slums. She is one of the New People, bred to suit the whims of the rich. Engineered as slaves, soldiers and toys, they are the new underclass in a chilling near future where oil has run out, calorie companies dominate nations and bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.
As Lake becomes increasingly obsessed with Emiko, conspiracies breed in the heat and political tensions threaten to spiral out of control. Businessmen and ministry officials, wealthy foreigners and landless refugees all have their own agendas. But no one anticipates the devastating influence of the Windup Girl.
If you look to your left you will see all the awards this novel has won so far and it's been critically acclaimed by many author's and reviewers. It's a novel i've been wanting to read for sometime, the only issue is that the more successful or acclaimed a novel is, the more difficulty I sometimes find reviewing it. Finding the right words, making the review unique but yet interesting to read becomes difficult when even websites like the Guardian have a review.
With any work that has become so successful there is also always the feeling that to reach mainstream they must have "sold out" or dumbed down their work, evidenced to some extent by the top 100 book chart with novels from authors such as Dan Brown and JK Rowling (I love Harry Potter but it doesn't tax the grey matter much). I am delighted to say that this book however clearly does not "sell out" or pander to a mainstream audience, the integrity of the book is fully intact.
The Windup Girl is one of those breakout novels that fire the imagination so that it becomes a work of literature over genre, and is enjoyed by a wider audience than those (admittedly many) scifi readers out there. One thing I find very interesting is that many of the reviews from the more mainstream publications are comparing the work to William Gibson's cyberpunk classic Neuromancer which to be honest I don't really agree with and it rakes with me that they appear to be only really saying it cause that too was a seminal, genre defining breakout novel.
It's like they are comparing just because it's the only other book of this magnitude that they have heard of. Sure the books share a certain flair (although the styles are very different) and there are simliar plot twists with intersecting scenes of violence but they are really very different stories, told in very different manners and yes it's dystopian but it's very far removed from Cyberpunk.
So essentially what we have here is a dystopian thriller set in a post energy crisis Thailand around 200 years in the future. I love this setting, not only have we got this unique blend of energy conservation, designer plagues and genetic modification it's also set in the exotic, politically contentious area of Thailand. We've got genetically modified Elephants that are used to power electricity generating springs, a rising sea level that's only held in check with pumps and dams, and even a nod to Lewis Carroll with the Cheshire's (fantastic idea). To a western reader with little real knowledge of the east, it's a very intriguing idea that is handled with intelligence, style and verve.
Introduced into this mix is the idea of a barely accepted and degraded almost slave workforce - the "Yellow Card" Chinese refugees, scarcely tolerated and used for some of the most menial tasks, the way they are treated is very much reflective of the current immigrant workforce in this country with some people sharing the ideology that they are here "taking our jobs". Then there is the "Windup Girl", a Japanese genetically engineered post human that has become an illegal plaything.
It's a very impressive piece of work, the world building is top notch, the use of technology inventive and there are some very original and thought provoking ideas here. I especially like how just about everyone and everything is corrupt (with one or two notable exceptions) and some are just more corrupt than others. There are also many areas that are just hinted at, which includes the whole western calorie company story and indeed the alluded fall of the eastern superpower China. I did however find the story a little slow in places, the pace isn't very fast to begin with, which is understandable considering the scope of the novel but it does get quite slow in one or two chapters. Most of the characters also never really seem to achieve their full potential, with the exception of Emiko - The Windup Girl herself. A word of warning too, there are a few scenes of a graphic and disturbing nature, these are however all handled maturely and are essential to the plot. Despite the minor niggles this is a work of pure genius with more ideas packed in than there is in some whole series of books.
The plot is full of many twists and turns and just when you think the ending is going to work out one way, it all get's turned on it's head. Throughout the novel I got the very vague feeling of a Philip K Dick story, partly due to the way the ideas are presented and partly as he is one of my favorite authors and this book has had a similar impact, it's a novel that encourages you to quietly reflect and inwardly digest.
The Windup Girl is an inspired work of fiction, utterly compelling and impossible to put down.
Written on Saturday 8th January 2011 by Antony.
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