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The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Cover Artist: Raphael Lacoste
Review by Ernest Lilley
Night Shade Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781597801577
Date: 15 September 2009 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Paolo Bacigalupi's first novel is a brilliant work of the not so distant future, expanding on the themes in his dystopic short stories, where fossil fuels have gone the way of the dinosaurs, plagues are propagated by bio-engineered foods, and modified animals and humans, of which the title character is one, are the beasts on whose backs civilization rides.

If you've read Pump Six you'll be familiar with the tone of Paolo Bacigalupi's debut novel, The Windup Girl. All our chickens have come home to roost: plague, famine, water shortage, sea level rise...and fossil fueled infrastructure is a hardly believed dream from days gone by. Paolo's novel takes place in Thailand, in a walled city, walled not against the marauding hordes, but against the constant pressure of the sea, held back by coal powered pumps and massive dikes. The sea isn't the only thing kept out of Thailand by walls, or in this case, by whiteshirts, the enforcers of the Ministry of the Environment, sworn to keep out invasive species, including all manner of bio-engineered foods.

But it's Thailand, where bribery is the way of things, and laws are often as much an indicator of what's being flouted as what's being obeyed, so the walls around the city are porous, more so to the gajin foreigners with their money and industry than the water, which everyone can see is a threat.

Anderson is an agribusiness man, a high level operative searching for the holy grail; a new seed-bank hidden by some government that had shown the foresight to stockpile genetically diverse materials against the dark night of pandemics and extinctions that ran wild as the world fell apart. Here in Thailand he's found tantalizing signs that a hidden gene bank exists, with unknown and disease resistant fruits cropping up in the markets. Thailand, which has chosen to keep the outside world at arms length, refuses to give outsiders access to their bank, or even admit that it exists.

So Anderson is here running an experimental factory to make high efficiency kink springs, mechanical energy storage devices, or at least that's the cover that AgriGen is using for its search for the gene bank. It's a good cover, because the springs themselves could revolutionize energy storage and distribution, if only their production process could be stabilized to the point of economical yields.

Anderson floats through the subculture of farang (foreign) businessmen as he searches for clues, and political leverage, to the open the gene bank vaults. In a dive run by a classic ex-pat, where warm whiskey and exotic sex are on tap, he encounters the windup girl of the title, an artificially engineered Japanese new person who has been abandoned by her Japanese businessman owner rather than pay for her passage back to Kyoto after a business trip. Now Emiko is a star attraction for nightly sex shows where she's abused and degraded. Wired for servitude and pleasure, she's as much a slave of her own needs as of the bar's owner.

There are a number of threads that come together throughout the story. The ministries of Trade and Environment are grappling with each other, with Trade gaining in power as Environment wanes. The plagues that the Ministry of Environment had taken drastic measures to keep from consuming Thailand seem under control if not eradicated, and a new age of global commerce run with high speed sailing ships and heavy lift dirigibles is dawning.

There's also skulduggery going on within Andersen's factory, as his yellow card Chinese refugee assistant seeks to restore himself to the prominence taken from him when Malaysian religious fanatics overran his shipping empire and killed his clan. He and his fellow yellow cards are barely tolerated in Thailand, but that's better than the treatment they'd get elsewhere. Now, if only Hock-Seng could steal the secret to the new kink spring design and sell it to the Thais, he might be back on the way up. More than shady business is going on here though, and what's up with the contaminated algae tanks and the line workers dying of strange infections?

A perfect storm is coming, and the windup girl will be at its center, not at the quiet eye of a hurricane but more like the funnel of a twister.

The generipping technology that underlies the new economic reality is well realized by the author, as is the chimeric gene-hacked creatures. Giant mastodon throwbacks strain against powershafts providing energy to run factories. computers are powered by treadles, radios by cranks, and nobody has air conditioning to abate the tropical heat. The poplar fuels are dung and methane, and the alleys are overrun with gene hacked chimeric cats that have outbred their natural cousins, aided by what had been intended as a party trick, the ability to change color and blend into the background like Lewis Carrol's Cheshire cat.

The windup girl herself is based on solid technology, driven by the needs of an aging world to create young and healthy workers to care for them. Wired into her and her kin are intelligence, beauty, and the ability to laugh off diseases that human flesh is heir to. Also built into their makeup is the need to please a human master, a need that defines their existence. Being purpose built, the new people have their limitations. Emiko's flawless skin won't let her sweat enough to cool her body in the tropical heat, and she has to be careful not to overexert herself, lest she literally cook her brain. That's an ironic constraint, because she will discover that her reflexes and perceptions can operate at super-human speeds, if only she could keep from roasting herself in the process.

The process of moving from slave to freedom for an engineered human is well explored here, and reminds one of Gwyneth Jone's work in the White Queen trilogy, which I also highly recommend. The overall depth of Bacigalupi's vision is reminiscent of Neal Stephenson's early works, particularly The Diamond Age and if he can keep from falling prey to Neal's tendecy to write doorstoppers, he should provide us with fresh insights for many books to come.

Though we know that economic pressures tend to work against it, we can hope that Paolo won't stop writing short stories, at which he excels. If you haven't already read it, you are encouraged to read his short story collection: Pump Six.

If I haven't said so yet, The Windup Girl is clearly one of the most significant books of the year, definitely worth Hugo consideration, and the herald of more good work to come from the author.


Also worth considering: Thailand seems to be on our minds at the moment, or at least my bookshelf. I recently read an excellent crime/thriller set in Bangkok, Breathing Water which I expect readers of SF and its dsytopic/punk tales will find resonanant as well. See my review and interview with the author on SFRevu's mystery oriented sibling, Gumshoe Review: Breathing Water: A Bangkok Thriller by Timothy Hallinan.

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