There is a scene early in Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel The Windup Girl in which a giant, bioengineered elephant (a “megodont”) goes on a rampage. The people near the animal scatter in fear. That’s how you’ll fear for the first hundred pages of the book, as Bacigalupi drops you into late twenty-second century Bangkok and tramples you with his Big Ideas.
The future Bacigalupi envisions is a grim place. Global warming has forever altered the landscape; Bangkok is preserved only by giant pumps that keep the sea from flooding the city. The end of oil led to “the Contraction,” the collapse of the global economy and the old political order, including the United States and the European Union. Corporations bent on profits at any cost have unleashed on the world bioengineered plagues that have ruined entire ecosystems.
Bacigalupi’s characters vie for power against this grim backdrop. Anderson Lake, corporate shill, is looking for a way to open the Thai market to his company’s produce. Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee from Malaya, is trying to rebuild the shipping empire he lost when his countrymen were butchered by native Malaysians. Emiko, the titular “windup girl,” who takes her nickname from the stuttering movements programmed into her bioengineered DNA, seeks a home. But nothing comes easy to anyone in Bacigalupi’s world, and one would be hard pressed to separate the winners from the losers.
Bacigalupi does not make it easy for the reader. The narration is not intrusive, taking for granted the facts of the world of The Windup Girl. The effect is disorienting, which is as it should be: It’s part of Bacigalupi’s Big Idea to confront the reader with the world we’re all helping to create every day. And yes, it’s horrifying not because it’s so alien, but because it’s so recognizable. Still, the shifting perspectives, from Anderson to Hock Seng, and so onward, quickly situate the reader. Indeed, by revealing the knowledge of what humanity has done to the world throughout the book, rather than with an introductory chapter, makes the story more discomfiting. The reader knows that, with each turn of the page, some gruesome new revelation is at hand.
Bacigalupi is at his best when setting the scene. If there is a weak point in The Windup Girl, it’s the plot, which comes unwound like the springs that are manufactured at Anderson’s facility. The story heads one way and then another, never quite resolving into a cohesive unit. It may be that Bacigalupi was trying to follow too many characters, or it may be that his Big Idea was too big to fit into less than 400 pages. The reader gets the sense that the story is meandering. Still, given the scope of the book, concern over the plot is a minor quibble. After all, Bacigalupi’s characters are little people adrift on the currents of history. It’s not surprising that events pan out in ways that neither the characters nor the reader could have anticipated.
Bacigalupi followed The Windup Girl with two spiritual, if not direct, successors. Both Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities, which are young adult titles, have shades of The Windup Girl, including some graphic violence, but they lack some of the nuance of Bacigalupi’s first book. Highly recommended for fans of dystopian science fiction.