Paolo Bacigalupi – The Windup Girl (Book Review)

The Windup Girl cover

Paolo Bacigalupi – The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl takes place in the same desolate near-future as Paolo Bacigalupi’s short stories “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man”. The one-two hit of an energy crisis and food shortage means that all surviving industry is driven by manual labor, whose expense in “calories” will slowly kill the starving laborers. The book’s genetically engineered marvels may reflect the promise of the future, but it’s a not-too-subtle morality tale: The pandemics and food shortages that plague mankind are the the direct, perhaps intentional, product of greedy genetic engineers.

The previous stories of this world were collected in Bacigalupi’s Pump Six and Other Stories, one of the best books I read last year. This novel is good, though it doesn’t live up to the high standards those short stories set for me. The quicker tales can emphasize the desolation and hopelessness of the setting, but the author (sensibly) restrains himself from making a novel-length story that bleak. The longer format emphasizes Bacigalupi’s deft touch with other cultures – it’s set in Thailand, and both its setting and the foreigners mixed in feel natural – but the moral lesson at the end feels disappointing when it follows hundreds of pages of complex build-up.

If The Windup Girl doesn’t always emphasize the same things that the previous short stories did, it finds a new way to explore human cruelty: Emiko, the titular “Windup Girl”, is a genetically engineered slave, abandoned in a country where her kind are illegal. While prostituting herself to abusive clients who consider her less than human, she tries to keep a dream of freedom alive. Subservient by design, her fight against her own nature establishes the core theme of the book.

Emiko’s scenes have an additional duality: The writing is as violent and lurid as the worst exploitation material, but their power and humanity is undeniable. I wouldn’t blame anyone who found this book to be horrifying or unreadable, especially in the context all the recent debates about rape as a lazy writing tool. But I would say that even the worst writing tropes exist because people are trying to copy from other works that used them well, and The Windup Girl is one of those good ones. No topics should be completely off-limits, and this is an example of why. It’s too bad to think that the empathetic and necessary scenes here may inspire lesser writers to create awful, violent works.

The Windup Girl is a complex, controversial story built atop a world that Bacigalupi is now familiar enough with to keep in the background. It’s not what I expected from his previous stories, but it’s unique enough to work as both a companion piece to them and as a standalone novel.

Grade: B

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