The Windup Girl

Paolo Bacigalupi

Set in Thailand in a near future where the food chain has collapsed and is now controlled by a few corporate agri-businesses, the story follows four characters point of view as they deal with a steadily declining political situation in Bangkok. Thailand has moved to a state of extreme nationalism with strict border controls in order to protect their food production. The agri-businesses have been frozen out and there is a tense stand-off that slowly descends into open conflict between the Trade Ministry who want to open up to foreigners and the Environment Ministry that wants a closed Thailand and blames foreigners for the destruction of the worlds food chains.

The main protagonist is Anderson Lake, who could be drawn from a Graham Greene novel such as Our Man in Havana. He is employed by one of the Agri-businesses to find Thailands seedbank and convince them to share their knowledge. He is trying to find a path through the heat, stink and corruption of a poverty stricken Bangkok in order to complete his corporate mission.

From the key supporting cast is Emiko, a new-human or windup from the novel’s title. She is essentially an advanced human android developed in Japan. She has been cast-off by her Japanese owner and now has to find work as a prostitute and strange curiosity. There are some uncomfortable and disturbing scenes relating to her abuse in the brothel she works at that lead to her questioning her existence. Her transformation and enlightenment make her the unwitting catalyst for a series of events that change the future of Bangkok.

Anderson’s assistant is a man named Honk Seng. He is a yellow card, an immigrant from China who lives in fear of the Thai people turning on the immigrant class in a riot of death as previously happened in Malaysia years before. He is a desperate old man trying to bring back his glory days when he was an upstanding  citizen in Malaysia. Hock Seng spends his time scheming to steal Anderson’s secrets and make a fortune so he can escape.

The fourth chapter introduces Jaidee, the incorruptible Tiger of Bangkok, a “white shirt” who are a kind of militia employed by the Environment Ministry. They want to stick it to the farang and foreign businesses by intimidating the customs workers and interrupting trade. The white shirts are “puffed on national pride”. Anyone not a Thai needs to go home.

This world is one where huge walls and levees have to keep the rising sea levels from encroaching on Bangkok even as they swallowed New York, Mumbai, Rangoon and New Orleans. It’s a dark future where jumbo jets are a thing of the past and it once again takes weeks to get around the globe on huge dirigibles. Calorie famines have swept the Earth killing millions.

In order to reduce carbon entering the atmosphere energy is at a premium and huge genetically modified Mammoth, known as Megodonts, wind huge kink springs to store and use energy. Gene hacking is a big part of this world, whether it’s to create new disease resistant crops or create new animals like the accidental Cheshires, a genetically engineered cat. These have become an invasive species, wiping out all other cats due to their ability to blend into their surroundings much like an octopus does by changing the pigment of their skin.

The novel edges its way to a confrontation between the two major powers, the inward looking protectionism of the environment ministry and the outward looking capitalist trade ministry. It’s a fight for what Thailand wants its future to be but a revolution is needed to get there and we get to witness the chaos of the conflict first hand through our protagonists. The novel builds on two short stories Bacigalupi had previously wrote; Calorie Man and Yellow Card Man. These are now in a collection called Pump 6.

A great interview with Bacigalupi can be found at Raintaxi Literary Review

More Info

Publisher: Orbit

Year Published: 2009

Pages: 505

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