Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Windup Girl” is a near-future third-person narrative that takes place in 23rd century Bangkok, Thailand, and designs an intricate dystopian civilization where the world’s human populace and food supply have been consumed by diseases and deadly viruses (“cibiscosis,” blister rust,” and “genehack weevil”) causing entire species of life to become extinct. The food supply has been infected due to massive waves of corporately manufactured and engineered agricultural crop companies working in conjunction with the Environment Ministry and Trade Ministry to eliminate competition. Food corps and the calories they produce have become the new currency of trade: calories of food and measurable output energy producible calories (such calories as generated by potatoes). At the top of the food chain is food-corporate juggernaut “AgriGen” and one of its top executives, and the main protagonist of the story, Anderson Lake. Assuming a pseudo-persona of an innovative “kink-springs” developer, Anderson Lake is actually an undercover economic hitman for AgriGen, known as a “Calorie Man.” Lake leads an aggressive initiative set by the “Des Moines” based corporation. His assignment is to covertly work as a factory manager under the pretense of a new type of mechanical spring that is going to be revealed. Lake’s true mission is to locate Thailand’s incredibly lucrative seedbank and all the exotic fruit seeds it holds like “Ngaw” and “Rambutan” because conglomerates like “PurCal” and “AgriGen” control the marketplace through genetically altered food brands that were “gene-ripped” by “gene-hacked” seeds, bioterrorism, privately-owned armies and employees like Anderson Lake. This story is inundated with a plethora of characters, each one playing an important role to the dynamics of the unfolding storyline, but Anderson Lake and the book’s title character “The Windup Girl” (Emiko) are those most noteworthy. Succinctly, Windups, also referred to as “New People,” are essentially genetically modified test-tube babies: “it apes the motions of humanity, but it is only a dangerous experiment that has been allowed to proceed too far. A windup. Stutter-stop motion and the telltale jerk of a genetically engineered beast” (Bacigalupi 301). The preceding description is particularly disturbing as it mirrors ideological comparisons made towards African/Black-Americans during the era of slavery, and slaves are exactly what New People/Windups are in this society; in some countries they are regarded and detested as genetic trash without souls to be reincarnated. Emiko has been designed and programmed to be an extraordinarily beautiful, completely submissive geisha, and she is treated like a ragged sex-doll for perverse gratification: sexual bondage and physical abuse. New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys for the rich. However, the genetic makeup of New People give them abilities beyond that of regularly birthed homosapiens, like enhanced speed, strength, and agility. As the story slowly progresses, the political interests of the varying characters collide, and it appears the Thai government will be forced to give up its precious seedbank to corporate profiteers, but not before one last failed attempt at rebellion by Lieutenant, turned Captain, promoted to General Kanya Chirathivat leading the charge of the “White Shirts”; after the death of their leader Jaidee Rojjanasukchai (“Tiger of Bangkok”). It is during this final battle that the levees and dykes that were protecting the city from being consumed under sea level collapsed.
Due to global warming “it’s difficult not to always be aware of those high walls and the pressure of the water beyond. Difficult to think of the City of Divine Beings as anything other than a disaster waiting to happen” (Bacigalupi 7). The preceding denotes a continual need to safeguard the city against the adverse effects global warming is having of oceanic levels; thereby, delineating the initial conflict of the story as the novel’s setting, Thailand (which is bordered by two bodies of water the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea). Specific references to weatherization and climate change are subtlety inferred throughout the story allowing readers to determine what actual inference to apply to climate change affects. An example of this is demonstrated in the scene where Anderson and his colleague Richard Carlyle climb onto the roof of the factory: Anderson’s “hands burn on the tiles. He straightens, shaking them. It’s like standing on a skillet … breathing shallowly in the blast furnace heat … Sweat gleams on [Carlyle’s] face and soaks his shirt. They make their way over reddish tiles as the air boils around them” (Bacigalupi187-188). This quote does not specifically mention climate-change, but it is more than reasonable to conclude global warming as the determinate for the blistering heat. It is also logical to assess that the ozone layer must have reached an all-time low as all petroleum and fossil based energy resources are now nonexistent. The energy that operates the city is not procured from fossil fuels that are at the core of today’s energy conservation debates nor the alternative renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydroelectric and biomass. Energy is derived from manual labor. Sailing ships and dirigibles transport goods, computers exist but are operated with treadle-power, like antique sewing machines, guns shoot “razor disks” not bullets, and enormous genetically-modified elephants called “megodonts” and their human trainers manually wound kink-springs that store energy to be released later; think of a battery that is powered through kinetic rather than chemical energy. The effects of climate change comes in stages, “first came the rising sea levels, the need to construct the dikes and levees. And then came the oversight of power contracts and trading in pollution credits and climate infractions” (Bacigalupi 121). Next “massive holes cut into the red earth, lined to keep out the seep of the water table that lies close below. Wet land, and yet the surface bakes in the heat. The dry season never ends. Will the monsoon even come this year? Will it save them or drown them? With the climate so much altered, even the Environment Ministry’s own modelling computers are unsure of the monsoon from year to year” (Bacigalupi 239). The two aforementioned quotes presents the greatest dilemma faced by climate scientists and meteorologists, how does one accurately predict the weather? This novel does not try to answer this question, but rather presents a precautionary scenario. That is to say, in today’s present time humans can change the course they are traveling with regard to planetary destruction of the environment, but once the damage has occurred future generations will look back at this 21st century as a utopia compared to their time’s unpredictable weather.
For individuals who are fans of sci-fi/cli-fi literature Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Windup Girl” will most assuredly delight as it is a well-written, graphically detailed account of a plausible future ingrained with a complex plot. The author uses authentic Asiatic terminology and slang offering a genuine depiction of the Thai culture, but Bacigalupi’s also infuses his book with high-diction that clearly marks this novel as advanced reading geared toward more academic audiences, and not so much the contemporary laymen. The complicated and richly entranced storyline has multiple subtextual themes for which many groups and cultures of people will easily identify: focusing on trends in climate change data, bioengineering, political activism, religious fundamentalism, corporate espionage, sexual proclivities, physical abuse, economic disparity, civil war, racism, and classism. Individuals, like myself, who are not fans of this genre of writing will find the story long, drawn out, and lost for the first 130 pages (which could be omitted) as the novel has an extremely slow build to the dramatic end of the levees breaking and the water pumps going still with no animal nor human to turn them. The epilogue, which truly ends the book, gives the impression that this is the first in a series of works like Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower.” With this in mind, given the promise made to Emiko of being able to become fertile and reproduce this may be the beginning of a real world adaptation of the film I-Robot, but instead of robots, there will be a civil-war between birth-human beings and the test-tube generation.