Published by Night Shade Books (www.nightshadebooks.com)
Paolo Bacigalupi has received many accolades for his short fiction. His stories are marked by precise, intelligent language, memorable settings and engaging elements. Those qualities are on display in his debut novel, The Windup Girl. Set in a (possible) near future Thailand, where one of the most controlled aspects of life is the calories a person consumes in order to stay alive.
The novel truly starts with a bang as chaos ensues in a factory when a megodont, a genetically enhanced elephant goes berserk, causing destruction and killing people. The scene is well executed and really drew me into the story. Bacigalupi smartly introduces the main cast at this point as well. . One of the protagonists, Anderson is a Calorie Man responsible for making sure people don’t go beyond their allotted calories. Another character, Hock Seng, is the equivalent of a drug dealer, though his product of trade is alternate forms of energy sold on Thailand’s black market. The third primary character, Emiko, is introduced a bit later and it is from her the title of the novel is drawn. She is an artificial human, genetically created outside of the natural manner in order to be subservient and obedient.
In Anderson, we have somebody working for “the Man” who is an outsider to Thailand. His superiors run one of the largest energy companies and his true role in the company and Thailand is secret. Hock Seng, although originally from China, provides an insider view of the grit-and-grime of Thailand. Emiko, as an artificial human, has very limited status in Thailand, being artificially created as a servant. Fortunately for her, Anderson soon takes a liking to her.
At the outset, Anderson seems to be the novel’s protagonist. As the story developed; Emiko’s plight came to the forefront. Between her horrible treatment early in the novel and the development of her identity, she took over that role almost immediately upon her meeting with Anderson. Since the title of the novel is derived from what Emiko is, this really isn’t surprising. It was a bit of a bait and switch on Bacigalupi’s part, but one that was ultimately effective in transition and worked well for the novel itself.
The plot of the novel deals in sociological elements like race, politics, and the status of outsiders and artificial people. In many ways, I felt as if I was reading a Philip K. Dick novel – the timeframe of a near future coupled with the rigid and controlling über-governments gave Bacigalupi’s story just that feel. The setting was balanced very well between familiar and alien – in essence a future that seems scarily possible within the current landscape of the world.
While the setting was the strongest element of the novel, I was unable to completely connect with the plot or remain connected with the characters throughout the novel. After the explosive and engaging first chapter or two, the narrative wasn’t able to maintain my interest completely for the remainder of the novel.
While the setting and themes of the novel were the highlights, the characters and plot didn’t quite live up to those stronger elements of the novel. The Windup Girl is set in a finely crafted future and shows much promise for Bacigalupi. On its own merits, it didn’t connect with me as much as I’d hoped but left me with an eagerness to see this writer grow with his next novel.
© 2009 Rob H. Bedford