Well written and powerful, it’s easy to see why Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Windup Girl” has been so acclaimed and awarded. The story of people in the Thai Kingdom, somewhere in the future, the story is told through multiple points of view – the American factory owner/agent who is using the factory as a cover; the abandoned Japanese windup girl, an android or clone, who is forced to survive by dancing and prostituting herself; the expat Chinese factory manager who works with the agent and betrays him; and two White Shirt members of the Environment Ministry who go around enforcing code, fighting disease, and taking bribes or stealing them (depending on your point of view.) Each has a reason for why they’ve come to the point where all paths intersect, and each has the desire to survive the hard life that exists in the kingdom.
Bacigalupi’s characters are three dimensional and well drawn, but I found it hard to sympathize with all but the windup girl and the female White Shirt. Both of them are victims who seem caught up in circumstances. And while each commits acts which are violent and even criminal against other humans, both have a genuine desire to do the right thing. They are just protecting themselves the only way they know how. The lack of a central “hero” left me a bit empty at the end.
The book is paced very well and the world building is top notch. Bacigalupi has done his research on Thailand and created a wholly real and believable future world. In truth, it doesn’t seem so vastly different from what one might expect to see in a Developing World country today, except for the gene replicating and windups. There are dirigibles here and a few other steampunk tropes, but the time period is not Victorian and neither are the people, so it’s not really steampunk genre. It’s more slipstream, often compared to William Gibson. In many ways, the world here is if anything less developed than our own, relying on megodonts (giant mammoth/elephant type creatures) to power the city through their leg power, travel around mostly on bikes, ricshaws and a few cars. It just doesn’t seem as far future as one might anticipate, which only serves to make it all the more powerful.
Bacigalupi wisely sticks to English dialogue, subtly hinting what language his characters are speaking when necessary. He mixes in ethnic Japanese, Chinese and Thai phrases from time to time to add to the authenticity, and even uses some key native words throughout to lend to the feeling of being inside the mind of peoples who think in such terms.
Bacigalupi is a talented writer from whom I look forward to reading much more in the future. His future is a bleak one, which may have contributed to my disappointment with the lack of a pure hero. But his writing craft is solid and the book thoroughly engaging. Recommended.