The world of The Windup Girl is a journey through a corner of a future world imagined by Paolo Bacigalupi. The ecosystem’s shot to hell, the end result of rapidly mutating strains of engineered bacteria, viruses, and insects. Global trade is only starting to recover after the last drops of petroleum have been extracted from the earth. The sea level is rising, with strict carbon caps too late to contain the damage. Worldwide, governments are bowing to the will of calorie companies, the only entities capable of keeping ahead of the latest famine-causing plague.
The Thai Kingdom is one of the last countries yet to bend to the will of the calorie companies. Their secret? The world’s last seedbank, guarding the genetic material of everything lost to bioterrorism, and a mysterious generipper, a genius at bringing extinct species back to life and immune to everything the calorie companies can throw at them. The fate of the Thai Kingdom rests on control of the seedbank. The calorie companies want in, by any means possible.
There’s a lot going on in this story, and the first half of the book almost seems schizophrenic in the way that it jumps between threads with vastly different tones. Anderson Lake is a “calorie man” working the streets of Bangkok to track down the generipper and the Thai seedbank, secure the resources for his employers (a massive food and energy conglomerate), and do so without blowing his cover as a factory manager.
Jaydee and his humorless lieutenant Kanya are high officials in Thailand’s Environmental Ministry. Jaydee has made a name for himself as a tireless crusader against the pestilence threating the countryside, and is parleying his popularity into a quest against corruption in the government. However, corruption is most prevalent in the Trade Ministry, which has been steadily gaining in power as global trade recovers.
Hong Seng was a powerful businessman when the economy collapsed. After barely escaping his home country with only his life and the clothes on his back, he works in Bangkok as Lake’s factory manager, waiting for an opportunity to restore his business empire by making off with plans for a new form of energy production.
Then there’s Emiko, the titular windup girl. Genetically engineered by the Japanese for the workforce, windup people are created with certain unique characteristics. A genetic loyalty to the owner is one, as is a start-stop motion to movement designed to help keep the windup people in their place. Emiko once belonged to a Japanese businessman, but was dumped in Bangkok in favor of an upgrade. She works in a seedy bar to survive.
Not until about halfway through the book do these characters meet, and even then, in some cases, their interactions are indirect at best. Once the main players do start interacting, the different threads of conspiracy intersect to produce a chaotic political situation that only slides further downhill. Without trying to spoil too much, Lake finds himself co-opting a plan by a shipping company to forcibly open the Thai Kingdom for business, while Jaydee’s actions in the Environmental Ministry push the governmental factions closer to open warfare. To make things worse yet, a new virus is poised to become an epidemic, but it goes unnoticed in the tumult.
One of the things I liked most about this story is the sheer amount of intrigue that goes on behind the scenes. There are tantalizing pieces of information that are doled out in small amounts, yet their relevance to the bigger picture remains unknown until later in the story. In places, the narrative almost seems to be high-Gibson: a dazzling array of facts that are just enough to let you see that something is going on and the main characters are heavily involved, but just not enough to know exactly what until late in the story. The Windup Girl is heavily influenced by the ethos of cyberpunk. There are layers of conspiracies everywhere, some visible, some not. Just when you think you find someone pulling the strings, there is another puppetmaster, further back in the shadows.
Perhaps most menacingly, some of those conspiracies seem rooted in modern corporate trends. In The Windup Girl, food companies dominate the world trading system. To put themselves in such a position, these companies released genetically engineered viruses that rapidly destroyed the food web. In response, they created genetically modified plants resistant to those very viruses, but sterilized, ensuring that farmers would have to buy new plants from them every season. Further, the companies compete by releasing new viruses that attack their competitors crops, breeding newer and more deadly forms of pestilence as the years pass.
This trend towards monopolization and consumer lock-in has been occurring in Western business for the last several decades. One need look no further than the computer business (Apple, Amazon, and the like), or banking (a handful of banks control a significant percentage of American finance), or even food production (Monsanto in particular is noteworthy, as it has already begun selling sterilized, genetically modified crop seeds). Patent and copyright law is increasingly used as a tool to further solidify market gains and guarantee a consumer base.
Free trade agreements have helped large corporations in this regard as well. Rather than spur general development of an economy, a developing nation in a free trade agreement with a Western power is often delegated a specialized role in creating goods for a Western economy. One such case is the Thailand of the real world. Rather than having a broad industrial base, it specializes particularly in car parts, electronic appliances, and computer parts. Economic reality also ensures that goods outside of this role will be cheaper to import from elsewhere, rather than to create a new industry at home. Instead of developing the economy, these policies leave nations trapped in a role that leaves them vulnerable to the economic winds in distant countries.
Bacigalupi has his finger on these trends, and takes them to their logical extreme. Sterile seeds are distributed to countries, where engineered pestilence leaves farmers unable to grow anything but crops genetically modified to be disease-resistant. Any attempts to break “patent” on these strains is met with trade embargoes and focused campaigns to destroy any crops a farmer may successfully grow on their own. The inability of a country to grow its own food is then used as leverage to open up its economy and labor pool to further the goal of “global trade”.
In the end, the story really boils down to an argument between two sides. Both ministries in the Thai government wish to maintain their self-sufficiency, and their policy differences are just a matter of degree. However, they both see the amount of influence that the foreigners want as a bad thing for the future of their country. The story is interesting to watch as all parties try to stack the deck in their favor in a winner-takes-all game.
One of the weirdest things about the book (and I can’t really call it a complaint, since authors aren’t generally in control of this) was the cover blurb. It really doesn’t have much to do with the story at all, as it focuses most of its attention on Anderson Lake and Emiko. While they are important players in the book, they hardly stand out from amongst the rest of the cast.
The blurb also builds up the idea of post-humanity as a central idea of the story, while it seems hardly anything could be further from the truth. While the windup people are genetically enhanced humans in some ways, they have also been engineered specifically to avoid having them replace the human race. The story doesn’t dwell on this point, and even Emiko’s story doesn’t focus on whether or not she is human, but her suffering at the hands of people who decide she isn’t. The idea that humanity as a whole is approaching post-humanity is only brought up a couple of times during a story, by a generipper intent on giving civilization a final push over that particular ledge.
So in my opinion, this is where The Windup Girl shines best: as a political thriller set in a near-future dystopia. While themes of science fiction aren’t at the forefront, they’re definitely there, their use is about what you’d expect from a book claiming cyberpunk heritage. Despite the somewhat slow start, Bacigalupi spins a plot that has the rush and urgency of a real political crisis. The cover-to-cover blitz of information helps build a paranoid world that follows in the very best tradition of the cyberpunk movement.