Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl

September 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

Overhead, the towers of Bangkok’s old Expansion loom, robed in vines and mold, windows long ago blown out, great bones picked clean. Without air conditioning or elevators to make them habitable, they stand and blister in the sun. The black smoke of illegal dung fires wafts from their pores, marking where Malayan refugees hurriedly scaled chapatis and boil kopi before the white shirts can storm the sweltering heights and beat them for their infringements.

In the center of the traffic lanes, northern refugees from the coal war prostrate themselves with hands upstretched, exquisitely polite in postures of need. Cycles and rickshaws and megodont wagons flow past them, parting like a river around boulders. The cauliflower growths of fa’gan fringe scar the beggars’ noses and mouths. Betel nut stains blacken their teeth. Anderson reaches into his pocket and tosses cash at their feet, nodding slightly at their wais of thanks as he glides past. (p. 7)

Paolo Bacigalupi has established himself as a first-class short fiction writer. Stories such as “Pump Six,” “The Calorie Man,” and “Yellow Card Man” have been nominated (and in the case of the former story, a Locus Award winner) for the Locus and Hugo Awards. The Windup Girl is Bacigalupi’s first novel and it is set in the same ecologically-devastated setting as “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man.” But regardless of how talented short fiction writers might be in creating quick-developing, hard-hitting short stories, many times there is an adjustment to writing longer fiction. In Bacigalupi’s case, there were times that it was painfully apparent that the fabric of this story felt stretched thin in places.

The story is set in late 22nd century Bangkok. The age of cheap energy has passed. Political entities such as the United States have collapsed, leaving behind huge agribusinesses who compete to control the current currency of “calories,” which are a combination of energy units for maintaining life and a form of storage unit for future use. Genetically modified animals like the megodonts (huge versions of elephants) represent part of an interbusiness (since it seems political bodies have been mostly subsumed into competing business entities) “war” where all sorts of genetically-modified crops have been developed to remain a tiny step above the GM pests and plagues unleashed by a business’s competitors in order to establish a precarious balance of power. It is a frightful world, one that Bacigalupi develops continually in this novel.

However well-realized the setting might be, the Achilles Heel of The Windup Girl is in its characterizations and plot development. As interesting as the scarcity world setting is, ultimately reader perceptions of how strong this story will rest upon how convincingly Bacigalupi develops his characters and how well-constructed the story itself was. For myself, Bacigalupi failed to develop either adequately.

There are three main PoVs in The Windup Girl, split between the “calorie man” Anderson, a representative of one of the main agribusiness interests in Bangkok; Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee-turned-“yellow card,” or black market dealer in energy supplies; and Emiko, the titular “windup girl,” or GM sentient being constructed mostly from human genetic material, supplemented with canine genes to ensure docility and obedience despite the “New People”‘s inherently superior resistance to disease and an apparently greater intelligence in comparison to regular people.

When each of these characters were introduced, I had hopes that this would be an in-depth, insightful look into how humans might deal with issues of competition and differing definitions of what would constitute being “human.” However, Bacigalupi spent so much time on developing his overall setting that at times it felt as though the characters were relegated more to being passive observers of this imagined nightmarish world than being active, multi-dimensional actors. This was most evident with the characters of Anderson and Hock Seng, as at times these characters seemed to be more akin to ciphers than being dynamic characters. But with Emiko, her character development was more troubling.

Emiko was trained to be a secretary in Japan before she was abandoned by her former master in Thailand, where the “windups”/”New People” are illegal. Emiko’s genetic predeposition to obedience, combined with the herky-jerky motions endemic to the windups (in order to help people to readily identify them from the rest of sentient society) and a pheromone release that makes her irresistible to human males has led to her being forced into a submissive, degrading role of a prostitute. Bacigalupi does not skimp on the sordid details of Emiko’s humilating treatment, from having beer poured over her on a strip club floor to having cold objects rammed up her ass while she has to perform cunnilingus on a human female. While he attempts to develop a strong dichotomy between this treatment and Emiko’s reactions, too often he fails to get to the heart of the matter, leaving me frustrated in the process.

The plot was rather thin as well. While the three characters do interact to some extent, there rarely is a sense of real import to their interactions by the time the story nears its presumed climax. It appeared as though Bacigalupi was so focused on developing the setting that he failed to put in the necessary attention to plot detail to make the characters’ stories more interesting than their environs. This was exacerbated with the concluding chapter, which failed to provide any sense of real discovery and which seemed to serve more as an opener to a possible sequel than it did to reinforce and to develop events from earlier in the book. As a result, the overall story felt stretched, very weak and underdeveloped for several of the presumed key events in the novel.

The Windup Girl read more like a good novella idea that was stretched too far in an attempt to make a true novel. Perhaps the story would have worked better if one of the two male character PoVs had been dropped or at least reduced. Perhaps it would have been stronger if the author had spent more time developing ways of showing why the characters’ stories were worth telling. Perhaps it would have had more to grab readers if the plot was developed further and if there had been a strong ending rather than the anti-climatic one provided. Perhaps…but that word is just so damning. As it stands, The Windup Girl is a novel that held some promise, but ultimately it failed to provide much in the way of entertainment for this reader. Hopefully, Bacigalupi’s next novel will shore up the perceived weaknesses of this one, as I think he was close to writing a finely-crafted, exciting novel, rather than the mess that The Windup Girl was at times.

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