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The Windup Girl
Paolo Bacigalupi
Narrated by Jonathan Davis, unabridged
Brilliance Audio, 19 hours, 33 minutes

The Windup Girl
Paolo Bacigalupi
Paolo Bacigalupi's writing has appeared in High Country News,, 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
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Windup Girl
SF Site Review: Pump Six and Other Stories

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sarah Trowbridge

  In the city of Bangkok, in the kingdom of Thailand, sometime in the future, a dizzying array of characters serving a most unlovely tangle of masters and agendas seethe and simmer in a stinking, humid cesspool of misery and failure. This seems to be the final, decaying remnant of human history on planet Earth.

Within this scenario we have Anderson Lake, the undercover "calorie man" and Hock Seng, the "yellow card" Chinese refugee, despised by the Thai people and relegated to poverty in a shantytown. Another player is Jaidee, a member of the "white shirts," as the hated and feared enforcers of the Environmental Ministry are known. And of course, Emiko, the "windup girl" -- a powerless and degraded sex slave designed and manufactured in Japan, abandoned by her owner and trapped outside the law in Thailand.

What has happened some decades prior to the story is the collapse of the world's food supply, as a result of corporate ownership of proprietary crops and the transformation of nature's bounty into tightly controlled intellectual property. The food-owning conglomerates, or "calorie companies," have waged biological warfare in the form of man-made viruses engineered to destroy targeted crops. This has led to widespread contamination of grains and produce around the globe. New plagues such as "cibiscosis" and "fa' gan fringe" have decimated populations and continue to cut people down -- especially those poor enough or desperate enough to consume foods contaminated with human-engineered diseases like the deadly blister rust. The only foods that are safe to eat are the engineered, trademarked, and mostly flavorless calorie company products like U-Tex rice and SoyPRO. Not coincidentally, every one of these proprietary foods is sterile: safe for consumption, but useless for propagation of more food for a hungry planet. If you want more to eat, you have to buy it from a calorie company.

For further evidence of the general global breakdown that went before, it is clear that The Windup Girl is set in a post-oil world. Our present era is known as "the Expansion," while the years following the collapse are referred to as "the Contraction." Petroleum as a fuel or as raw material for manufacturing is practically nowhere apparently. Power is generated by the release of massive springs that have been wound by the physical efforts of both humans and of teams of massive, elephantine creatures called megodonts, which have been created through engineered mutation, or "generipping." Generippers, it seems, are responsible not only for worldwide plagues and sterile, tasteless foodstuffs, but also for new lifeforms that walk among us. In addition to the hardworking and useful megodonts, generipping has brought us the deceptively whimsical cheshires: ravenous house cats modified with the ability to disappear, that managed to wipe out and supersede the worldwide cat population in little more than a generation. And then there are the New People: artificially engineered, purpose-built humanoids who are in some ways not quite human, and in others, superhuman. They are also known as "windups."

And so we come to the book's eponymous character. Supernaturally beautiful, with skin as smooth as mango, Emiko has been engineered to obey. A manufactured creation, she is completely submissive to the commands of others, in keeping with her technical specifications. As such, she comes across as the epitome of the clichéd SF fanboy's wet dream. The windup girl is debased, humiliated, exploited... and clearly designed to titillate. And even though Emiko gets her La Femme Nikita moment (which, come to think of it, is probably just another facet of the exploitation fantasy), the scenes of rape and degradation that precede it are depicted with a level of detail and attention that could almost be called "loving," and which can't be accidental.

The Windup Girl is fully loaded with the complexities of its setting and the criss-crossing objectives of its many characters. However, the development of the individual characters and the through line of the plot are not sufficiently robust to sustain the story's weight. The novel roams and rambles, wallowing among its many components and switching from viewpoint to viewpoint, and does not really begin to cohere until about two-thirds of the way in. The final third is significantly more interesting and well-paced than what preceded it, but the wait will simply prove too long for some listeners. Jonathan Davis is a competent enough reader, but his voice interpretations for most of the Asian characters are variations on a lisping whisper that unfortunately smacks strongly of old Hollywood stereotypes, and does nothing to improve the appeal of the story or its characters.

Copyright © 2010 Sarah Trowbridge

Sarah Trowbridge reads (and listens) compulsively, chronically, and eclectically. She is a public librarian in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia.

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