Book Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

As I have mentioned before, with the libraries closed, I am searching my shelves for overlooked books that I may have bought sometime in the past but never read. The Windup Girl is one of these. I found it in a Value Village a few years ago and meant to read it – after all, it’s a Hugo and Nebula award winner – but never got around to it. Until now, that is.

This dystopian novel is set in Thailand a few centuries into the future. Global warming has raised the level of the ocean, and Bangkok is kept from flooding by seawalls. Genetic plagues ravage the globe, and huge corporations use bioterrorism and monopolies on seed stocks to subjugate most of the world. Thailand stands out, though, as a bastion of independence, although even there life is a debilitating struggle for survival.

Bacigalupi tells his story through the viewpoints of several major characters. These include an American who works for one of the major agricultural corporations, his Chinese refugee factory manager, two Thai members of an elite force that is loyal to the country’s Environment Ministry, and the windup girl of the title, an artificially created being whose owner uses her as a prostitute. Everyone regards the windup people as machines that have no souls and can be used and discarded at whim, but the author soon makes it clear that the windup girl is as human as anyone else.

To be honest, I got off to a slow start with this book. I found the setting up of the story by switching from one character’s perspective to another to be somewhat confusing. It was interesting enough to persevere, though, and I’m glad I did. As the various threads of the characters progress, the situation clarifies, and I found that I became more and more invested in what was happening.

One thing that works well in this novel is the setting. It is evident that the author has done his research, as he presents a future Thailand that is believable, albeit depressingly dark. For the most part, he focuses the story within the city, and so he is able to provide a dense, detailed microcosm of a closed-off realm from which the outside world is perceived as the habitat of malevolent political and economic forces. This creates an almost claustrophobic atmosphere of paranoia, deception, and subterfuge.

The novel is particularly relevant in light of the pandemic that is changing all of our lives. It swept in on all of us suddenly, caused us to close ourselves off to each other, and made us realize that things will never be the same again. In a sense, our complacency has become our undoing. We were seemingly on a roll, going along with business as usual, and all of a sudden the lives of everyone on Earth were upended. The world has changed, and it continues to change daily. Each news report carries frightening new realities. I didn’t realize that worldwide plagues comprise one of the focuses of this book; if I had, I might not have picked it up. Now that I have read it, though, I am thankful for the experience, and thankful for this vision and the visions of other science fiction writers who often have premonitions of things to come decades or even centuries before they arrive.

I’m not saying that science fiction novels are prophetic. However, they offer thought-provoking possibilities that cause us to ponder the consequences of our actions, now and in times to come. That’s what this novel does.

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