Eye On Sci-Fi Book Review: The Windup Girl, by Paulo Bacigalupi

Just finished reading Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. Wow, what an awesome read. I mean this book is really freaking good.

Published in 2009, I’m sure some of you who have already read this exceptional novel will be saying to yourselves….What the heck took you so long? The answer, my friends, is life and the constraints it puts on time. I’ve just been so busy that it takes me a while to work through my bookshelves, which are chock full of sci-fi books waiting to be devoured. Although it took me some time to get around to The Windup Girl, I’m damn glad that I finally did. Because authors just don’t write amazing stories like this as much anymore.

Number one, this guy makes characterization an insufficient word to describe the people that populate this story, because that’s what they are: people. His characters are living, breathing, complex, complicated people.

And it’s not just the people in this story that are so damn great. It’s the concept.

A synopsis in brief (no spoilers): In the 23rd century, world technological progress has come to a convulsing, shuddering halt after societal dependence on fossil fuels has led to runaway global warming and fossil fuel reserves have collapsed. The story zeroes in on a handful of characters living in future Bangkok. There are Calorie Men, corporate spies and occasional economic hitmen, who look for new, untapped genetic codes of local foods to steal in order to tap new markets and maintain global dominance. There are windups, genetically engineered leftovers from the previous century, called “The Expansion”, who are designed specifically for pleasure or labor. In between these disparate segments of society is everyone else: displaced Malay Chinese, refugees and victims of religious extremism, left to eke out some kind of existence in this bustling, confusing world. There are the enforcers of the Environment Ministry, mostly corrupt, tasked with keeping the Thai Kingdom’s local fruit and vegetable seed strains natural and as untainted from invasive species and disease from the generippers as possible. And the backdrop to all this is a society run on spring-loaded energy, methane from dung heaps, cranks, levies, and gigantic seawalls constructed, futilely, to keep the rising sea levels from washing Bangkok completely away.

Now the concept overall is very intriguing and, if you think about, pretty frightening. We are talking about a future where technological progress has hit a wall and ricocheted off in a completely different direction, a direction that is necessarily more primitive yet no less ingenious. The Stone Age emotions which the human species has developed over eons is now closer to the surface in this future society. Only a thin veil of decorum masks the brutish, self-serving and power-seeking designs of the populace. But, just as in modern times, there is good mixed with the evil. Despite the corruption, despite the back-stabbing and deceit, and in spite of all the hopelessness, there is still those who fight the good fight, those who strive to hold the tattered threads of society together, albeit against near-insurmountable odds. And that is where this novel really shines bright as a supernova. There are glimpses of humanity and the good in even the most evil people in this book, just as in real life. It is my belief that even despite people who have gone down as the most evil despicable humans ever to walk the Earth, in some weird paradoxical way, they are saints in other people’s eyes, and may even do genuinely good deeds from time to time. The Nazis, after all the atrocities they committed, still loved their families. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to show any kind of sympathy for Nazis, but it is shown time and time again, if you are a keen observer of reality and if you research horrible time periods throughout history, that sometimes even the most savage tyrant would, from time to time, grant mercy to his victims for no reason other than they may have just been feeling kind in that moment. And that’s what this novel shows, and what makes it so great–the people that inhabit this world resonate beautifully and authentically. There are no purely evil caricatures, the good guys don’t wear white hats. Each character is gray, though some more white and some more darker than others. Bacigalupi is one helluva maestro when it comes to characters.

A few nitpicks I had, though, was there were many grammatical errors and a real tendency which the author had of repeating certain phrases. In light of the story, these were ultimately minor problems. An editor should have gone through it one last time before publication, in my opinion.

But these quibbles were found to be inconsequential and mostly forgotten when compared to this story as a whole. The Windup Girl should go down as a masterpiece not only in Science Fiction, but Literary Fiction as well. It is in novels like The Windup Girl that the “Science Fiction Genre” reveals what it is capable of. When executed like this, Sci-Fi reaches a level up there with Literature. And should the American Literary Community get its head out of its backside and come out and acknowledge that Science Fiction is one of the best avenues Literature has as a whole, then Science Fiction writers would finally get their just dues.

–Charles Moritz

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