Reading List: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi [updated]

The Windup Girl - coverThe Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi has been hailed as “2010’s science fiction ‘it’ book” (here) and one of the finest science fiction novels of the year. It’s been nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards as best novel. And Time Magazine named it one of the Top 10 Fiction Books in their year-end round up of the “Top 10 of Everything.” Despite all this (well-deserved) critical acclaim as a work of science fiction, though, Windup Girl seemed at times disturbingly topical — far too close to non-fiction, given the harsh, dystopia future it depicts.

While I was reading the book, I also happened to come across articles discussing a new, resistant strain of wheat rust threatening global food supplies; drug-resistant diseases, including TB, MRSA and gonorrhea; the disappearance of a disputed island in the Bay of Bengal under rising seas; increasing unrest in Thailand; and concerns about food riots and other violent social upheavals in the wake of climate change.  All of these news reports dovetailed disturbingly with key aspects of the novel. At times, I was switching back and forth between reading articles and the novel, seemingly discussing the same processes, just at different stages, Windup Girl showing the near-future of the articles’ present

Windup Girl is a difficult novel to summarize in that it tells the stories of an interwoven set of characters, each from their own viewpoint. It’s easiest to begin by discussing the dystopian world in which the novel is set. It’s the not-distant-enough future, a time known as the “Contraction.” The preceding period, the time we live in — this time of hyper-consumption, globalized capitalism, rapidly accelerating use of genetically-modified organisms in agriculture, and rampant wastage of dwindling fossil fuel supplies — is the “Expansion.”

A large proportion of the world’s population has been killed off by a series of drug-resistant plagues — and by starvation, as drug-resistant and genetically-engineered pests and diseases wiped out most of the world’s food supply. Most of the societies of the world have disintegrated in the wake of the chaos and violence brought on by starvation and the devastation of economies by the crop plagues and the disastrous impact of climate change. Bangkok, where the novel is set, is a city under siege: by nature — a rising sea level barely kept at bay by a network of dikes and pumps, genetically-engineered cats and tree-boring beetles, and plagues, always mutating and threatening to finish what they started; and by people — a coal war with the Vietnamese over the scant remaining supplies of fossil fuels, an invasion from Burma, refugees from strife-torn Malaysia, and the calorie companies, the mostly North American-based global agri-business concerns that control some of the only strains of rice, wheat and other staples that are resistant to the plagues.

Thailand is one of the last countries to resist the dominance of these “calorie companies” and the other emerging corporate powers, most particularly the Japanese, that are trying to bring on a new “Expansion” in which they will dominate. It is able to do so through a seed bank, sequestered away with great foresight by a previous monarch and kept secret and zealously guarded by the current regime, and with the help of a renegade “gene-ripper,” a genetic engineer who used to work for AgriGen, one of the calorie companies, but fled their control for Thailand — though not from noble motives. His body is being slowly ravaged by a mutated disease that not even his scientific prowess can overcome, and he lives now only for the thrill of intellectual competition with the genetic efforts of his colleagues, and for the pleasures of the flesh which he can obtain in exchange for his services to the Thai government.

This is the setting in which the characters of the novel struggle, in which their lives come together, often violently:

  • Anderson Lake, a covert operative for one of the despised “calorie companies,” has come to Bangkok to track down rumors of a secret seed bank — a source of the genetic raw material his company needs to develop new food crops.
  • Emiko is the titular “windup girl” — one of the “New People,” genetically engineered by the Japanese and grown in vats as slaves to perform the labor necessary to support their aging human population. Trained as a geisha and brought to Thailand as secretary and sex toy by a Japanese executive, Emiko is abandoned there when her boss leaves — she wasn’t worth the cost of taking her back to Japan. Now she works as a freakish floor show attraction and prostitute in a Bangkok brothel, always in danger of being killed and mulched for fertilizer by the Environment Ministry, since as a genetically-modified organism she is forbidden.
  • Hock Seng is a “yellow card” — a barely tolerated immigrant group, ethnic Chinese refugees who escaped to Thailand from Malaya after the “Green Headbands” there slaughtered all non-Malays, one of many such massacres perpetrated around the globe by the new fundamentalists, religious extremists attacking scapegoats for the harms of genetic engineering and disease.
  • Kanya is one of the “white shirts” — the police of the Environment Ministry, charged with enforcing environmental laws, cracking down on dung fires and black market methane. And with zealously guarding against any new outbreak of genetically-modified organisms or plague — burning whole villages at the first sign of a new or untreatable strain of a disease.

These characters’ schemes and struggles end up reshaping the future of Thailand. Okay — that’s a bit lurid… I think I started channeling one of those people who writes book jackets and movie trailers for a minute there (“In a world gone mad…“), but you get the idea.

Windup Girl returns to the world author Paolo Bacigalupi previously explored in The Calorie Man (Hugo Award nominee, 2006) and Yellow Card Man (Hugo Award nominee, 2007) — a world shaped by bio-terrorism, genetic engineering, and catastrophic climate change. That not-distance-enough future that is looking increasingly like it could be our future.

For more…

on The Windup Girl

on wheat leaf rust and related topics:

on drug-resistant diseases

on rising seas


Bangkok under emergency rule | World news | The Guardian.

Not white shirts, but red shirts:

Photo of protesters - from


One response to “Reading List: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi [updated]

  1. Pingback: Another idea whose time has come: Seed Banks | the bad days will end

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