This is the first biopunk science fiction novel I have ever read. It will probably also be the last one. Warning: review contains mild spoilers.
Themes Explored: human genetic modification, genetically modified food, bioterrorism, environmental disaster, climate change, economic suppression, immigration, humanoid rights, ethics of humanoid programming, morality, starvation
Synopsis: What happens when calories become currency? What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a means of control? Global Warming has raised sea levels and wreaked havoc on the food supply. Food is controlled by three calorie companies: AgriGen, PurCal, and RedStar. Anderson Lake is AgriGenCalorie Man in Thailand. His job is to search the markets of Bangkok looking for historic foodstuff. While exploring the market, Anderson encounters Emiko, a Windup Girl. Emiko is a strange creature known as one of the New People. She is an engineered humanoid created for the wealthy Japanese elite, but her owner abandoned her in the streets of Bangkok. How can she survive in a world run by non-modified humans?
Review: The Windup Girl is a biopunk science fiction novel written by Paolo Bacigalupi. This novel won the 2010 Nebula Award and tied with The City & the City by China Miéville for the 2010 Hugo Award. I do not normally read biopunk science fiction novels. But The Windup Girl was listed as a “must read” science fiction novel by my library, so I decided to give it a shot. And, well, it is unlikely that I will ever return to this subgenre. For a debut novel, the novel is surprisingly well written. I just had a difficult time connecting to the characters. And I am not that interested in reading about engineered humanoids trying to survive in an environmentally wreaked Earth. But that is just my personal preferences; I know a lot of people find this stuff fascinating.
Biopunk science fiction is a subgenre of cyberpunk and mainly focuses on the near-future consequences of biotechnology advances. The majority of biopunk stories explore the product of human experimentation with synthetic biology. Usually the synthetic beings are individuals with advanced modifications created through genetic manipulations. In this case, Emiko is a synthetic being created to mimic the mannerism of the Japanese Geishas and to respond to the sexual whims of rich businessmen. She is called a “windup girl” because of her stiff mannerisms. Emiko is also a fully sentient being, but her programming sometimes overrides her independent tendencies. After being abandoned in Bangkok, Emiko is exploited in a seedy Thai brothel. Bacigalupi tries to make Emiko a sympathetic character by emphasizing her degradation at the hands of the brothel owners. However, Bacigalupi does not quite manage to critique the perils of sexual objectification and instead just reproduces it. And I really did not need a multi- page rendering of sexual violence against an engineered humanoid Geisha.
Anderson Lake is the only character that comes close to fulfilling the role of protagonist. He is AgriGen’s economic spy; his goal is to discover the location of Thailand’s seedbank. This “bank” is a collection of fruit/vegetable genetic information and is incredibly valuable because crops need to be constantly “updated” to resist genetically enhanced diseases. Anderson is trying to find the bank as fast as possible so he can leave Bangkok. His best scenes happen after meeting Emiko; he ends up falling for her. This infatuation manages to soften his otherwise harsh and stoic edges. He and Emiko have to struggle with her artificial nature and biological programming. However, I did not find either character to be overly sympathetic. Maybe I just have a hard time relating to a guy who is in love with an engineered humanoid.
Perhaps the strongest part of this novel is the written descriptions of a post-oil dystopian society. Thailand is ruled by a Child Queen and struggling to survive in the wake of environmental collapse. All crops are genetically modified and the seeds are controlled by the calorie companies. Genetically engineered viruses routinely wipe out all non-genetically manipulated food sources. Cities are fighting a losing battle against rising sea levels and devastating bioterrorism attacks. Society is ruled by the tyranny of calories, oil based motors have been replaced by spring-based models, and everyone lives in fear of the next genetic virus outbreak. Powerful politicians are still competing for influence, only calories are the currency not money. My two problems with this created world are: 1) we never know when these events occur, 2) Bacigalupi constantly tells us that Thailand is incredibly hot. He mentions it nearly every paragraph. Otherwise, Bacigalupi’s futuristic Bangkok is volatile, filthy, and on the brink of collapsing from the constant juggling for survival.
Overall, The Windup Girl is well written and has an eccentric collection of characters. Parts of the narrative drags in parts and some scenes are overly long and complicated. The plot throws in several false leads and unnecessary twists. When the narrative finally reaches the climatic showdown, the ending is a bit of a downer. However, the last couple of pages are probably the best written parts of the book. The Windup Girl is not for everyone, it can be a painfully slow read at some points. If you are interested in reading about imagined futures with environmentally wreaked worlds and genetically modified food, then check out The Windup Girl. If none of this sounds appealing, than stay away.
The Windup Girl, Night Shade Books, 2010,ISBN: 9781597801584