Friday, June 17, 2011

Review: The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl is a Multi Award-winning novel by Paolo Bacigalupi.  The Windup Girl is set in the near-future Thailand in a world where the oceans are rising, technology as we know it is mostly kaput, and the world's food supply is in the control of massive "Calorie Companies" who use biotechnology to create seeds that are temporarily resistant to the many bio-engineered plagues that decimate food supplies and populations across the globe.

The situation in Thailand is slightly different than most of the other countries that still thrive due to the fact that they possess a vast seed stock of non-bio-engineered seeds that can resist the various plagues for more than one growing season at a time.  This makes them largely independent from the various Calorie Companies that more or less reign supreme in other parts of the world. 

The Windup Girl is a character driven story that features a number of point of view characters that all have different aspirations and motivations, yet all play a role in the overall plot.  Anderson Lake, the first point of view character we encounter in this novel is a calorie company man working undercover in Thailand attempting to discover the Thai seed bank.  Lake owns a factory that produces springs that can store energy, but he largely leaves the day to day operations to his assistant, a displaced Chinese refugee named Hock Seng. Seng is  a former successful business man himself with designs on regaining his lost glory. 

Working sort of on the opposite end of Lake's desires is Jaidee, a captain of the "White Shirts" a group who acts as a trade enforcement police force.  Jaidee, his lieutenant Kanya, and the other White Shirts are seen as heroes to some in power and nothing more than terrorists to other government factions. Jaidee and his White Shirts walk a fine line between righteousness and corruption. 

The final principle point of view player in this novel is Emiko.  Emiko is a windup girl, an artificially created human.  Abandoned by her Japanese creators, Emiko finds herself working as a sex slave at an exclusive sex-club.  Since windups are illegal in Thailand, her pimp/controller bribes away the authorities and subjects her to nightly sexual humiliations.  It is during one of her nightly sexual assaults that she gleans some valuable information from a customer; information which she soon imparts to Lake who has become one of her regular customers.  This information sets in place a series of events that will bring about abrupt and deadly change for Thailand and it's inhabitants.

For my money, Bacigalupi's strength lies in his ability to describe the setting and give the reader a very strong sense of "being there".  There were many times when I felt like I could feel the oppressive humidity, smell the odors of the dingy streets, or the aromas of food vendors.  This quality of his writing gave an added amount of intensity and realism to the story and I fully appreciated the effort.

The plot was well planned, paced and filled with some solid twists and turns. However, I had one major problem with this novel.  Bacigalupi was never able to make me care about what was going on.  I couldn't relate to or sympathize with any of the characters and as a result, didn't give a damn about what happened to them.  This made me pretty detached from the narrative and I mostly just felt like I was going through the motions of the story.  I don't want to give the impression that I think Bacigalupi's character building skills are poor, they aren't.  It is clear he took the time to craft and develop them and give them some layers, they just didn't jive with me.

The future that is envisioned in The Windup Girl is quite frightening.  Bacigalupi's imagined future that bears the effects of global warming and fully diminished carbon based fuel is a potentially accurate portrayal that lends a large degree of credibility to this novel.  Bacigalupi was able to rise to the challenge of creating a world that takes some of the major issues from current times, and extrapolating them a couple hundred years into the future.

All told, The Windup Girl is a novel with strengths and weaknesses.  This novel features some qualities of a great novel, but for me lacked engaging characters, which led to an overall lack of engagement in the story.  Bacigalupi has the skills for a successful career in writing, but there is also some room for improvement.  This is a read that will present some thought provoking ideas, but for my money didn't fully deliver as a story.  The Windup Girl is worth a read if you are an avid science fiction reader looking to catch an up and comer on his way up.  There was enough good here for me to have an interest in Bacigalupi's other/future works, but The Windup Girl mostly failed to wind me up.

Grade: C-

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