The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (2009)
- Incredible world but very dense
- Great plot with multiple characters which interlink
- Morally grey characters, very real
In a vivid dystopian future, The Windup Girl is a biopunk dealing with climate change, biotechnology and genetic modification of food. Following multiple points-of-view, an expansive plot weaves together a political unstable city, a new emerging virus, and an out of place windup girl.
The Windup Girl opens, in fact, not with the windup girl. We are introduced to Anderson Lake as he buys some fruit on the bustling streets of Bangkok, and realises that it’s a fruit he has never seen before. In a long, introspective scene, Anderson divulges that as a calorie man — working for one of the genetically modified crop companies who create crop plagues to increase demand for their own sterile, resistant crops — he is tasked with finding the Thai Kingdom’s seedbanks, which could produce such a fruit. The windup girl, Emiko, is only revealed in the third chapter, through a graphic exchange between her and a human madam within a sex club. She is a genetically grown human from Japan, one which moves ‘heechy keechy’ and overheats with exertion in the tropical climate, and whose need to serve is often described as ‘dog-like’ in her genetics. A connection with Anderson starts her own journey, realising she can do more than just serve and forces her to find a way to be free.
Though most writers would stop at two protagonists — especially with characters so complex, within a world so dense with jargon, new technology and a variety of languages to wrap your head around — Bacigalupi adds two further protagonists into the mix. Tan Hock Seng is a Chinese yellow card refugee running from a Malaysian massacre of his people, to find himself under Anderson’s employment — but ultimately searching for a way to make money and return himself to a semblance of his old power. Contrastingly, Jaidee Rojjanasukchai is a Thai native, a royalist white shirt from the Environment Ministry, too dedicated to protecting the Kingdom from viruses to care about the danger from upsetting Trade men. All four characters are woven together, following their own motivations, until all storylines converge as the political unrest in the city is sparked into an action-packed crescendo of violence.
There have been criticisms over the characters, calling them unlikeable, however Bacigalupi replied in an interview that ‘I have empathy for people who make difficult or […] unethical or cruel decisions. It’s not so much that people are bad, it’s just that under strain, people break and our ideals break.’ However, unlikeable characters were the least of the criticisms for this novel. Frustration over the scientific discrepancies which had it labelled as ‘wet’ science fiction, the argument over Orientalism and cultural stereotyping and ultimately, criticism of the sexual abuse conceived upon Emiko, thought of as ‘extraordinarily graphic’ and ‘visceral’. However, Bacigalupi has stated that he expected such a response, having been ‘ashamed’ while writing it, and knowing that his presentation of violence against women would have a ‘cascade effect’. Readers will have to make up their own minds on whether Bacigalupi had sexist intent, or whether these aspects were purposefully displaying such a horrific, dystopian future.
The Windup Girl has been praised for its similarity to William Gibson’s Neuromancer for ‘the plot-twists, the bursts of violence and a noir stylishness’, but ultimately won the Nebula and Hugo Award in its own right. Criticism aside, Bacigalupi’s poignant climate themes, a setting which is a ‘contemporary environment, not a science fictional future’, shows that The Windup Girl is just as meaningful in 2023 as it was back in 2009 — and as such, is well worth its awards for relevance alone.
Genre and Approachability
While The Windup Girls’s concepts are clearly science fiction in nature, Bacigalupi’s work is often termed literary fiction as it deals with difficult and thought-provoking themes which mirror issues within our own society. The very real climate issues modern society faces is mirrored in his dystopian future.
The contrasting opinions shown over genetic modification is explored through the novel’s GM crops, which are both a saviour to starvation as well as a breeding ground for disease. The idea of capitalism is disparaged by the calorie companies monopoly on crops, which they have purposely bred to be barren so farmer would have to buy new seeds every year, and destroy natural seedbanks which threaten profit. Further political themes are explored by the city of Bangkok struggling between preserving its culture and religion against the encroachment of the outside world, supposed advancement and development of their society. And finally, an important theme explored is the idea of a lesser human, both by depiction of yellow card refugees – a group of people who should be happy for any work no matter how dangerous, or any housing no matter how poor – and windups, both being sex workers and therefore an ‘object’, as well as being genetically grown and therefore ‘has no soul’. These themes are supposed to have the reader analyse the world and society, giving ‘a sense of hope […] hope for right action and for an evolution in humanity’.
Following the idea that The Windup Girl is literary fiction exploring expansive themes, Bacigalupi uses the sci-fi backdrop to brings distance to our own world, in which his displays of dystopia would be too graphic for most readers. Even Emiko herself being a windup girl, a totally fictional being which our world has not created yet, is used as a medium for abuse, which to a human would seem far too violent – though there are some critics who suggest it was still too hard-hitting, an idea explored later. In addition, the plot is very classic science fiction, where the windup girl – like an android in typical science fiction – yearns for freedom, discovers how to claim her power, and ultimately becomes the cliched rogue robot. Such a classic plot makes the novel familiar, allowing development of well-rounded characters and important literary themes to be more approachable to all readers.
Though The Windup Girl has literary theme, the world-building of this dystopian future is very present. Bacigalupi shows the sci-fi aspect by using a wide range of new terminology and story-related jargon, which is impossible to ignore even from the first chapter. The mix of Thai language, crop plagues and diseases, and names of crops and crop companies, are thrown into the first chapter with no explanation apart from context. While most writers would be tempted to provide a glossary, Bacigalupi merely repeats these phrases in different contexts, until the reader is forced to understand. While such a technique might be alienating to most readers, it could be argued that this proof that the audience for The Windup Girl is both literary fiction and science fiction. Science fiction readers will expect heavy worldbuilding, shown through terminology and description, and should be able to understand through context – while literary readers, while unused to such terminology, are prepared to work harder to understand themes and not need over-explanation.
One of The Windup Girls key science fiction concepts is the namesake windups. They are genetically grown humans, usually originating from Japan who needed young workers and termed as ‘more than human’ to the Japanese. She was built to serve, but referred to by Emiko herself as ‘a piece of property, true, but respected nonetheless […] an exquisite, valued object’. Though the Japanese use windups for multiple ways, including Emiko as ‘pillow companion, secretary, translator and observer’, there are mentions of multiple-armed factory windups and strong military windups. However, within the plot, Emiko is being abused in a sex club, in extremely graphic ways, treated as less than human as ‘we all know windups have no souls. […] No rebirth for them.’ which is an important aspect of the Thais religion.
While the windups are described as the perfect being, resistant to infection, extremely fast and beautiful, there is built-in obsolescence where humans have stopped them from being superior beings. One is the ‘porcelain skin and reduced pores, but it means she is subject to overheating.’ which prevents the windups from being able to move too fast, as well as the ‘herky-jerky, heechy keechy’ movement which makes them so visible as different from humans. While these traits are common within the sci-fi genre, in relation to robots or androids while in this case genetically grown windups, there is another which is more unusual. ‘How they use their innate qualities is a question of their training, not of their physical capabilities. [The windup] has been trained from birth to pace herself appropriately, with decorum’. This idea is emulating a robot’s code, to have mental limitations as well as physical, which is an intriguing idea within The Windup Girl, as it suggests the power of psychology and the weight placed behind the idea of ‘decorum’.
Similarly to the idea of a robot’s code, Bacigalupi uses the word ‘doglike’ multiple times in the novel to describe the windups’ need to serve and obey, which Emiko states herself, ‘She is an animal. Servile as a dog’. This again subverts the idea of coding, and instead develops on the incredible idea of genetic coding. At the end of the novel, the final remark is the most powerful: ‘Your obedience … I don’t know where they got it. A Labrador of some sort, I suspect.’
Finally, the last idea of built-in obsolescence is the idea that windups are sterile. Emiko states, ‘If her kind had come first, before generippers know better, she would not have been made sterile. She would not have the signature tick-tock motions that make her so physically obvious. […] Emiko might have had the opportunity to supplant the human species entirely with her own improved version.’ The idea of reproduction in relation to a robot in a sci-fi is also common, with the climax of Emiko’s storyline being the promise to clone her and make her children fertile.
As stated earlier, The Windup Girl hosts multiple points-of-view across multiple, intriguing characters. Anderson Lake, a calorie man working for one of the genetically-modified crop companies who create crop plagues to increase demand for their own sterile, resistant crops, in Bangkok to find the Thai Kingdom’s seedbanks. The windup girl, Emiko, working in a sex club and being abused by her madam, finds Anderson and realises there is a chance of freedom for her. Tan Hock Seng is a Chinese yellow card refugee running from a Malaysian massacre of his people, to find himself under Anderson’s employment — but ultimately searching for a way to make money and return himself to a semblance of his old power. Contrastingly, Jaidee Rojjanasukchai is a Thai native, a royalist ‘white shirt’ from the Environment Ministry, too dedicated to protecting the Kingdom from viruses to care about the danger from upsetting Trade men – supplanted by Kanya Chirathivat, his lieutenant, who is revealed to have been more mixed-up in the politics than her dedicated captain.
Bacigalupi explained his decisions to have multiple POVs as the novel was based on three of Bacigalupi’s short stories — ‘The Calorie Man’ who introduced Hock Seng and ‘Yellow Card Man’ which expanded upon him, combined with the world from ‘The Fluted Girl’. Bacigalupi called combining all his ideas ‘the most ambitious and difficult thing I could attempt’. However, the range of point-of-views allows Bacigalupi to explore multiple storylines, explain much more about the complex world and politics within the city, and develop each character with interiority. The development of such rich characters is a credit to Bacigalupi, as each feel real and complicated.
References:  Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (London: Orbit, 2009), pg.54.  Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl, pg.282.  Arafat Kazi, ‘Interview: Paolo Bacigalupi talks about The Windup Girl’, The Phoenix (2010) <https://thephoenix.com/boston/arts/106214-interview-paolo-bacigalupi-talks-about-the-windup/> [accessed 16 February 2023].  Eric Schaller, ‘The Problem with Cheshires: Where Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl Fails’, The New York Review of Science Fiction (2015) <https://www.nyrsf.com/2015/10/eric-schaller-the-problem-with-cheshires-where-paolo-bacigalupis-the-windup-girl-fails.html> [accessed 16 February 2023].  ‘Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi’, SF Signal Archives (2010) <https://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2010/05/review_the_windup_girl_by_paolo_bacigalupi_1/> [accessed 28 November 2022].  ‘Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi’, SF Signal Archives (2010).  Christie Yant, ‘Interview: The Redemption of Paolo Bacigalupi’, Lightspeed Magazine (2011) <https://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/nonfiction/the-redemption-of-paolo-bacigalupi/> [accessed 16 February 2023].  Adam Roberts, ‘The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi – review’, The Guardian (2010) <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/dec/18/windup-girl-paolo-bacigalupi-review> [accessed 16 February 2023].  Christie Yant, Lightspeed Magazine (2011).  Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl, pg.153.  Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl, pg.345.  Christopher Cokinos, ‘The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi’, Orion Magazine <https://orionmagazine.org/review/the-windup-girl/> [accessed 16 February 2023].  Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl, pg.50.  Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl, pg.153.  Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl, pg.146.  Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl, pg.345.  Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl, pg.425.  Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl, pg.54.  Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl, pg.425.  Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl, pg.282.  Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl, pg.262.  Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl, pg.504.  Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl, pg.163.  James Long, ‘Interview with Paolo Bacigalupi – Part 1’, Orbit Books (2011) <https://www.orbitbooks.net/2011/05/03/interview-with-paolo-bacigalupi-part-1/> [accessed 16 February 2023].