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The Windup Girl by Paolo BacigalupiUK edition4 stars

Buy from IndieBoundThe Windup Girl, the eagerly anticipated debut novel by Paolo Bacigalupi — whose novelettes “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man,” both Hugo finalists, are this book’s prequels — depicts a grimy post-ecocrash near-future dystopia in which peak oil has long since peaked, and the most cherished source of energy is measured in the tightly regulated calories one consumes and burns every day. If you like worldbuilding, this novel’s vision of a bleak and corrupt civilization in decline makes Blade Runner look like it was shot on plywood backdrops in someone’s garage. It’s so immersive that you can practically smell the environment and feel its tropical heat wafting from the pages. As a work of idea-fiction speculating on the direction humanity may take once we’re done wrecking the planet and depleting our resources, the book is refreshingly undidactic and coldly convincing. Emphasis on the “coldly.” Simply put, you don’t want to live here.

But it’s a redemptive tale in its own way. The winners here are the ones who manage to survive with their integrity intact while those quick to compromise what few ethics they have end up caught in the inexorable rush of events. The most sobering theme in the story has nothing to do with its cautionary portrayal of our possible post-petroleum future, but how most of the people living in it haven’t learned the lessons of history. As their world proceeds to collapse around them, they’ll fight amongst themselves over cash, power and ideology before coming together to solve problems every time.

Bacigalupi sets his story in late-22nd century Bangkok. The tropical environment feels like a metaphor for the human condition. It’s stifling, oppressive, way too hot, and everything feels like it’s either about to melt down or blow away. Bacigalupi establishes an ensemble cast that he wisely keeps from getting too big and unwieldy. Anderson Lake is an American “calorie man,” shipped overseas to run a ramshackle factory manufacturing electricity-generating springs. But it’s a cover for his real work, the stealthy hunt for a hidden genebank that has allowed the Thais to create thriving new lines of fruit and other produce, immune to existing strains of engineered plagues. Hock Seng is his Malay-Chinese factory assistant, in Thailand only as a despised “yellow card” alien, and dreaming of regaining his former life of wealth and prestige. 

The city itself is encircled by levees, and run by the Trade Ministry, all too eager to cut deals and take foreign bribes, and the Environment Ministry “white shirts,” who are all that stand between the city and any number of genehack infections that can ravage the populace. Naturally the two ministries are bitter enemies. The most notorious white shirt enforcer, Jaidee, known as “the Tiger of Bangkok,” does his job with a sense of incorruptible righteousness worthy of Eliot Ness. Though he’s popular in the press, there is only so far Trade will let him go in driving away foreign dirigibles and burning imported goods by the pallet-load. Jaidee’s lieutenant, a humorless and efficient young woman named Kanya, actually has much going on below the surface, and in many ways she’ll experience the most profound arc of all the story’s characters. 

This is a story of people doing their best to survive where there are fewer and fewer niches in which to do so. And this brings us to the title character, Emiko, a Japanese-built “New Person,” genetically engineered for subservience and pleasure but with the will to know there’s something better, and the emotional capacity to wish for it. At first her presence in the story is rather curious. She feels out of place in this seething tropical biopunk slum, with her false, innocent beauty and the herky-jerky body movements that earn her that nickname. But that’s the point. She belongs nowhere, in a future where everyone is running out of places to belong. This is a world where ecoterror has wrecked the crop yields of entire nations, and all the calorie companies care about is profit while holding the power to decide if millions enjoy feast or famine. Created by this very same genetech, the “windups” give people a scapegoat upon which to project their anger. That they were created as the most docile of slaves (except for the rumored military models, whispered about but never seen) only adds to the contempt everyone has for their not-quite-humanity.

Many readers are simply too disturbed and put off by the very presence of Emiko, which I would argue is the point. You’re meant to be repelled by the amorality that created beings like her in the first place, and then subjects her to a life of every kind of abuse, with her only dream of escape a rumored haven for windups somewhere to the north, that is almost certainly mythical. 

But it fits that Emiko will be the catalyst for the story’s most profound events. Though she does find herself in something of a relationship with Lake, she remains isolated in her view of the world, indifferent to the political cauldron boiling up in the city around her. At one point she will do something motivated solely by a newfound sense of self-interest, because even an artificial “New Person” has a line beyond which they can take no more. And this act will determine Bangkok’s fate for good or ill. 

It’s been a long time since SF has seen a novel this stimulating and challenging. The inevitable comparisons to early Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Charlie Stross have been made. But I find Bacigalupi’s world so much more vivid, more absorbing and immediate. Emphatically not a book for everyone, The Windup Girl will feel much too oppressive for many readers’ tastes. You have to work for this book’s rewards, and it’s a polarizing, love-or-hate novel among SF fans at large. But once you’re committed, Bacigalupi's storytelling is never less than electric, and his characters — human or windup — develop a real connection to the reader that keeps them from being overwhelmed by the obsessively detailed world. This is a debut more impressive to me than Neuromancer, and it showers Paolo Bacigalupi’s career with promise. Wind him up and watch him go.