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The Windup Girl
Paolo Bacigalupi
Night Shade Books, 300 pages

The Windup Girl
Paolo Bacigalupi
Paolo Bacigalupi's writing has appeared in High Country News, Salon.com, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. It has been anthologized in various "Year's Best" collections of short science fiction and fantasy, been nominated for the Nebula and Hugo awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best SF short story of the year.

Fiction by Paolo Bacigalupi
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SF Site Review: Pump Six and Other Stories

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A review by Dan Shade

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The cover of the trade paperback version quotes Lev Grossman (author of The Magicians) as saying "It's ridiculous how good this book is... [Paolo] Bacigalupi's vision is almost as rich and shocking as William Gibson's vision was in 1984... I hope he writes 10 sequels." Well, I don't think it's ridiculous how good this book is, I think it's a miracle. I think it's a testimony to Bacigalupi's talent. And I wouldn't compare it to William Gibson's vision in Neuromancer and call it almost as good. I think this book is to post-apocalyptic science fiction books what Ridley Scott's vision in Blade Runner was to science fiction film. Furthermore, while there are some similarities between these stories such as the Windup Girl and Rachael both being engineered beings, the vast majority of the story is different. But how much can you vary from post-apocalyptic themes? There are only so many ways to screw the planet. War, famine, poverty, gene-splicing, and mutations are but to name a few. Both Blade Runner and The Windup Girl have these elements in common. I think The Windup Girl is a better vision of the future than that of William Gibson. Oh, I don't question the accuracy with which Gibson predicted the future but I don't revere him the way others do. Science fiction has been predicting the future since H.G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon. And nobody's invented a time machine yet, well, that I know of. What I'm trying to say is that Bacigalupi vision may be just as strong. Only time will tell. But I too wish he would write 10 sequels. Finally, it is also interesting to note that both Gibson's and Bacigalupi's novels are first books and both won major, distinguished science fiction awards. The Windup Girl won the Nebula award and Gibson's Neuromancer won the Nebula, Hugo and various other awards.

I also cannot compare this work to Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the book from which the movie Blade Runner was adapted). Again, I recognize a masterpiece but the world of Dick's book isn't even the same as the movie based upon it. So, throughout this review I will be mostly comparing The Windup Girl to Blade Runner and the genius of Ridley Scott.

I know that I am inadequate to describe the horrible conditions the world and its remaining lifeforms find themselves in The Windup Girl. I wish I could just say it's horrible and leave it at that but I will try to paint a picture though it be more like The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The Windup Girl takes place in Thailand, in and about Bangkok. Huge retaining walls have been built to keep the sea out (global warming gone rampage). Water is pumped back into the sea with coal driven machines. Petroleum is non-existent. People are starving the world over. The population of the world has been greatly reduced by a virus called cibiscosis which continues to mutate and cause more death. Crops suffer from attack by mutant viruses. In the midst of all this, the Thai people seem to be sitting on a seed bank. Elsewhere in the world Blister rust is mutating every three seasons, HydroCorn only survived 60 percent from the weevil bug last year. Yet, the Thai people have been eating potatoes for the past five years and now a new, delicious, bug resistant fruit has been discovered in the market. The Thai call it ngaw.

This is also a time of corrupt governments that allow gene-ripping corporations to war against each other and where one can do what one wants if the bribe is large enough. Thai who market food can use illegal blue methane instead of the green if they bribe the white shirts from the environment protection ministry. The Thai people try to stay apart from the rest of the warring world in order to survive another day. The Chinese that escaped the wars in China by fleeing to Thailand are hated, made to carry a yellow card, and live in deserted, dilapidated high rise apartments that are all crumbling to the ground. Hated even more but tolerated because of their money are the whites from Europe and America. Although both countries have suffered from terrible wars that have divided the land in ways we would not recognize. Not to mention that the sea has reclaimed much that was once hers.

Into this corrupt corner of the world walks Anderson Lake. Posing as a factory manager, Lake is an Calorie Man from AgriGen back in Des Moines. He's there to discover if the rumored seed bank really exists and work out a deal to get some fresh genetic material (seeds) for AgriGen to profit. Other important players are Captain Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, the Tiger of Bangkok, head of the white shirts from the environmental protection ministry who are feared by all, Hock Seng -- Anderson Lake's factory supervisor, who causes more trouble than he's worth, Jaidee's Lieutenant Kanya Chirathivat who also secretly works for another government agency, and of course Emiko, the windup girl. Emiko is new people. She was genetically engineered and raised in a creche in Japan. She is what Blade Runner would have called a pleasure model. Her skin is engineered to be so smooth that she hardly has any pores and cannot sweat. So the slightest physical activity causes her to overheat. She can actually die from overheating. Once she had a rich benefactor who kept her in climate controlled environments. When he was through with her, he turned her loose on the streets of Bangkok. Now she works as an exotic dancer in a whore house. Her owner must buy her expensive ice water.

Now, let's consider Emiko. She is my favorite character and the fulcrum of the story. Emiko and Rachael (from the movie Blade Runner) are much alike in many ways. But this is to be expected as they are both man-made organic machines which I prefer to call androids rather than replicants. But their differences are more salient than their likenesses. Rachael is perfection (don't ask me who my favorite character is in Blade Runner). She has not a single flaw except perhaps that she smokes. Rachael has been engineered to replace humans. "More human than human!" is the Tyrell corporation's slogan in Blade Runner. I know of no slogan for the manufacturers of Emiko. She, however, is not perfection physically as is Rachael. Emiko is more on the line of Priss the pleasure model in Blade Runner. Her skin has been engineered to be so smooth to the touch that she hardly has any pores and therefore cannot sweat. She has also been engineered with clock-work, herky-jerky movement. Called "New People" in Japan where they are manufactured, you can spot one anywhere thus not allowing them to pass themselves off as human. Something Rachael can do with ease. However, Emiko has also been programmed with dog DNA so she has the desire to please and other DNA-driven urges.

It is Emiko who sends the fragile society of Bangkok tumbling which will surely have world repercussions. I would love to tell you how but then why would you want to read the book. Here's the profound question raised by this novel. Can we overcome our programming? Whether human or not, we have all been programmed. Sometimes I find myself saying or doing the very things I swore I would not emulate from my parents. Emiko answers this question stimulated by the rich environment Bacigalupi has constructed. Lest you think Emiko is the most memorable character, I'll tell you that all the characters are memorable. Especially Captain Jaidee and Anderson Lake.

I loved this book and regret not having shelled out for the hardcover version. Yes, in some ways it is similar to Blade Runner but 90 percent is not. It is the product of a very creative mind. Will Bacigalupi's predictions prove to be as accurate as Gibson's? Let's hope not. I, for one, could not survive in The Windup Girl's world whereas I think I might have a chance in Gibson's cyberpunk world. Actually, in my opinion, we are living somewhat in both of those worlds right now. I urge you to read The Windup Girl. I promise you will not regret it.

Copyright © 2010 by Dan Shade

Dan Shade is a retired college professor who loves to read young adult science fiction, fantasy, and horror. But he doesn't draw the line there. He also enjoys writing science fiction and hopes to publish someday. In the meantime, you can find him at lostbooks.org (under construction).


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