The dystopian future world in which Paolo Bacigalupi sets his award-winning novel Windup Girl is dazzling. It is more immersive, vibrant, and exciting than anything I’ve read since Heinlein’s “future history.” It is as rich as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and yet not jammed with story-slowing lore. The story is paced like an action movie, especially the second half, which is full of explosions and fires and chases and backstabbings just like the best blockbusters are. It twists through politics and intrigue. It examines greed, disease, bare survival, and what it means to be human.
Many diverse characters drive the story, only some of whom even know one another, and most of whom have names that are confusing to non-Asian audiences. In this regard, Bacigalupi demands a lot from his reader. However, the investment of effort pays off. Every character is deep and believable, with urgent and impure motives that accurately parallel real-world attitudes.
The real world is rarely straightforward.
Anderson Lake, whom at first I thought was the main protagonist, is inscrutable in the end: I have no idea if he was a good guy or a bad guy.
Stonewall Kanya is transformed by the time the story concludes—into what, I’m unsure, but I can tell it’s her own person.
Tan Hock Seng—the scheming, paranoid, little man who lost his whole family and financial empire in the violent overthrow of his homeland years before, and who now diligently protects his own interests, no one else’s—is my favorite, for some reason I don’t understand. He does awful things.
Emiko, the genetically engineered “windup girl” for whom the book is named, is tragic and sympathetic, even as she murders eight people in one second. That scene in particular, I really do hope to see on the silver screen someday.
The moral ambiguity in this book is striking. Some of the ethics that Bacigalupi tangles with, we are already tangling with in our real, modern world, too. The question of how to deal with refugees (political or climate refugees), is a real, terribly ambiguous question, for one. Questions about the use of technology to interfere with the natural reproductive process—“Has science gone too far?”—and of the origins of the human soul, no one is qualified to answer; but they are persistent questions nonetheless.
Of all the big questions that this book raises, the one that captivates me most is: How wrong is it to privatize a public good?
In the world of Windup Girl, rising sea levels have displaced countless people around the globe. The United States have fallen, Finland has been allowed to starve to death, and Burma is no more. Thailand is mostly underwater, and the city of Bangkok is surrounded by tall protective dikes. Increasing religious fundamentalism has driven many (like Hock Seng) away from their homes, and all nations are weakened by political factionalism. International cooperation has deteriorated almost completely in the paranoid aftermath of pandemic plagues, which geneticists designed on purpose. Monstrous, flawed, import-export economies have made all people dependent on free trade, but trade is zealously restricted, both by the white shirts and the Trade Ministry, whose interests do not even coincide. “Calorie monopolies” benefit from this fierce over-regulation, but everyone else suffers. They genetically engineer foodstuffs for sale worldwide, but they engineer them to be sterile, forbidding their customers from planting and farming, forcing them to always buy more, or else. (They are the ones who let the whole population of Finland starve, because a trade agreement couldn’t be reached with the highest levels of the Finnish government.) Anderson Lake is secretly employed by a calorie monopoly, AgriGen Industries, and he is charged with tracking down a man named Gibbons who infringed upon a number of their patents. Patent infringement, in this case, could mean any use of his skill as a geneticist in any way that might benefit anyone at all, except his heartless corporation. The bottom line is the bottom line is the bottom line, humanity be damned.
The term “patent troll” flashes across my mind. This is the derogatory term for software developers and companies who seek patents for their products, with no intention of actually furthering the field of computer technology, but only desiring to make money… waiting for someone else to just try and contribute to computer technology in some meaningful way, using a concept that’s a little similar to theirs, so they can sue ’em. These people are impediments to progress. Mustache-twirling-, coin-counting-villainous as they are, however, their malevolence can hardly compare with that of the heartless calorie monopolies, who hold whole nations hostage.
The Monsanto corporation, on the other hand, compares ominously well. Monsanto practically is a modern-day calorie monopoly. The similarities to AgriGen and PurCal, which are dark, dark figments in Bacigalupi’s dystopian vision, are frightening. To me, it is easily conceivable that, if the political climate ever afforded them the opportunity, even for a second, Monsanto would seize the right to sterilize all foodstuffs except for their own brand, as a perfectly practical measure to eliminate economic competition, and thereby subjugate farmers and consumers everywhere to their will, good or bad… and it’s bad. Monsanto is for profit, not for humanity. It’s a business.
So, to rephrase the question: What’s more important, the safety, security, and happiness of humanity, or profitable business? If you don’t answer “humanity,” then you’re either a sociopath or you don’t understand the question. It is the more difficult-to-defend of the two possible stances (being much less quantifiable than business is), yes, but it is right and good to stand for humanity. Everyone should be as happy and as healthy as is humanly possible. I take this as a given.
I am reminded of another modern-day analog for the calorie monopolies’ evil, too, besides the obvious Monsanto: privatized health care systems. I believe we all deserve state-of-the-art medical treatment (not to mention education, governmental representation, etc.). And I contend that it should be granted to us, for no other reason than that we deserve it, even if we can’t pay for it. Libertarianism and socialism are not four-letter words. They are for humanity. If they are against big businesses, so be it. Big businesses go against humanity when they grow too big, when they dominate their market, removing the consumers’ freedom to choose. They forget their place. Humanity should come first, and profit is incidental.
Windup Girl is a fantastic depiction of a worst case scenario, a scenario that might actually happen if capitalism goes unchecked without regard for ethics. It’s a mind-blowing, excellent book.