"The Windup Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi (2009)
"Gibbons snorts. 'The ecosystem first unravelled when when man first went a-seafaring. When we first lit fires on the broad savannas of Africa. We have only accelerated the phenomenon. The food web you talk about is nostalgia, nothing more. Nature.' He makes a disgusted face. 'We are nature. Our every tinkering is nature, our every biological striving. We are what we are, and the world is ours. We are its gods. Your only difficulty is your unwillingness to unleash your potential fully upon it.'"
Paolo Bacigalupi is an American writer of science fiction. The Windup Girl was his first book, and it went on to win the Hugo and Nebula awards. These days Mr. Bacigalupi seems to be aiming more toward the "Young Adult" market, but in the early 2000s he was one of the most prominent writers of "hard" science fiction. I first heard about him through one of the The Year's Best Science Fiction collections.
In The Windup Girl, a representative from a powerful agricultural corporation tries to maneuver his way into the Thai bureaucracy. As he jockeys for influence, he meets a "windup girl," a genetically engineered "secretary" stranded in Bangkok. His obsession with this windup girl takes center stage against a background of power politics and industrial espionage, in a world on the brink of environmental collapse.
This book reads a lot like an update of William Gibson, and at several points in the story Neuromancer came to mind. The two books aren't so similar that I suspected plagiarism, but it seemed obvious to me that The Windup Girl just wouldn't exist without Gibson's much earlier work to build upon. I'm not saying it's a bad book, I'm not saying it's unoriginal, but it definitely owes a huge debt to Neuromancer and other cyberpunk novels like it. The word "dystopian" is often overused in this context, but yes, this novel is definitely dystopian.
I found The Windup Girl to be an entertaining read, but as science fiction novels go it's pretty light on the science, and heavy on the fiction. Aside from characters mentioning things like "generipping" and "kink-springs" there's very little in this book that couldn't or doesn't exist at the present date. The author, for what it's worth, is very forthcoming about this fact.
If The Windup Girl has a weak point it's not in the technical details, but rather in the fact that none its characters are especially likable. Unable to become attached or invested in their struggles, it's hard to care about the plot, and by the end of the book I was just glad it was over. The book failed to trigger any kind of emotional response on my part, even if I could recognize the fact that its characterization was consistent and the narrative pacing was better than average. I just never felt like any of the characters offered me a "way in" to the book, despite the fact that I've visited Bangkok several times, and speak two of the languages spoken in this novel.
So is it bad? Is it good? Do I recommend it? I'd have to say that The Windup Girl is just... ok, and that anyone unfamiliar with William Gibson's work should just go read that instead. As modern science fiction goes it's an admirable attempt, but measured against earlier, more original science fiction it seems to lack something. What that something is I'd be at pains to point out exactly, but the unlikeability of the characters was certainly a sticking point for me.
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