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Published in 2009, "The Windup Girl" garnered a lot of praise and scooped several awards, notably the esteemed Hugo and Nebula awards for best sci-fi/fantasy novel. It was the first time I'd heard of Paolo Bacigalupi, though this isn't his first published work - after a lot of short fiction, this was his first full-length novel and big break. I'd picked up a copy from Waterstones about a year ago, about £7.99, but then never got round to reading it. When I finally did, I was glad I made the effort.
The setting is 23rd-century Bangkok, a dystopian sprawl nominally ruled by the Child Queen, but torn between feuding ministries and overrun with gangsters and refugees. The face of the Earth is no longer as we know it, with many major cities now below sea level. There are no fuel resources left, and food is an even more vital commodity than imaginable now. Many major staple foods are now extinct, with only continuous genetic modification keeping fruit and vegetables ahead of the relentless viral moulds and bugs. It sounds vaguely ridiculous when I try to explain it, but the concept really is compelling: a future where food is constantly mutating and dying, and science must work endlessly to keep ahead of the curve and gain temporary immunity. Don't laugh, but where would we be if potatoes, corn and rice died out?
The "calorie companies" try to keep the global monopoly on safe foodstuffs, but new mutant variants appear constantly, particularly in Thailand. Protagonist Anderson Lake makes it his business to research these new foods, but he must do so on the quiet, since broadcasting his work as a "calorie man" would draw all kinds of unwelcome attention. Under the guise of running a factory in the city, he puts out feelers in the hope of finding the Thai "seedbank" - the secret to their bio-engineering success - and giving his company, AgriGen, a business advantage. Little does he know of the disaster that's waiting just round the corner.
The "windup girl" of the title is Emiko, one of the Japanese-made "New People": a genetically-modified humanoid being, manufactured rather than born. She ekes out a meagre existence in a Bangkok brothel where her jerky limbs and uncanny looks make her the target of universal disgust and ridicule. The book gets pretty ripe in its depiction of Emiko's awful treatment, but it's occasional and doesn't come across as too gratuitous - her story is primarily about attempting to escape and find a life where New People are accepted. Of course, she crosses paths with our hero Anderson at some point, getting embroiled in a dangerous revolution that she barely understands.
Bacigalupi's supporting characters provide most of the book's flavour, likeable and morally grey in equal measure. Contrasted with a fretful businessman and the gentle windup girl, Jaidee Rojjanasukchai and Kanya Chirathivat add some ferocity and backbone to the cast. Two of the Thai Kingdom's despised "white shirts", they monitor the ins and outs of cargo ships: customs officers who carry out their duties with an iron fist and a ready baton. Nicknamed "The Tiger of Bangkok", Jaidee has ruined many fortunes and made countless enemies with his zealous policing, but his recklessness soon leaves him with no allies - apart from Kanya, who is more than she seems. Another character I enjoyed was Tan Hock Seng, a conniving old man in Anderson Lake's employ, whose fear of extradition is the only thing greater than his hatred for the wealthy "foreign devil" he must bow and scrape to daily. These secondary characters paint a much broader picture than Anderson's alone - in fact, I enjoyed reading about them more, with their more colourful experiences of life in Bacigalupi's vibrant, violent city.
Asia seems like a woefully neglected continent in western sci-fi. Bacigalupi, an East Asian Studies graduate who went on to spend time working in China, seems to have enough first-hand experience to make his setting authentic and vivid. Its exotic flavour alone makes "The Windup Girl" stand out from the crowd, bringing to the table a speculative future that's fresh and different but convincingly grounded in reality.
If there's one negative I can think of, it's the amount of jargon and background information that takes getting used to. Bacigalupi has built an impressive world down to the very last details, but, though I enjoyed wondering about calorie-to-joule transfer and cibi.11.s.8 pineapples, at times I found myself feeling mildly punchdrunk from the unfamiliarity. For the most part, though, you can work things out by their context, and the author does a good job of immersing you in his dense, intensely-realised creation while never insulting the reader's intelligence. Despite the clarity of detail, the book manages to stay pretty trim at just over 500 pages.
I found the first two or three chapters a little slow going at times, as new characters and concepts were introduced, but when the story got warmed up it was gripping and paced with skill. The ending was - I hesitate to say disappointing - but a bit of a winding-down, no pun intended. Half of me wishes for news of a sequel, for more closure and exploration of the book's ideas, but I also think its nature as a one-off is part of what makes the book so effective: Bacigapuli wove a taut yarn, buffing it to a mirror shine, and milking the idea any more would risk spoiling it.
Overall, a fascinating and innovative book that I really enjoyed, though it takes your full attention to get through at times. Genetic modification and the threat of global warming have a lot of topical relevance, but the author doesn't get on a high horse or labour any points: rather, they're just aspects of a very dark, intriguing setting. A commendable break-out novel, worthy of the praise it's received.