Journal of Writing & Environment

Flyway Summer Reads: Lydia Melby on Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Windup Girl”

“Summer is for reading books about the end of the world”
— A friend, on summer reads

Most of what I’ve been reading this summer could be called speculative fiction, or near-future, or post-apocalyptic, or just good ol’ sci-fi. Books about the end of the world fascinate me, and I’ve read some rewardingly sinister predictions, some hopeful projections about rebuilding, and some kooky excuses to dismiss social progress in the name of returning humans to their ‘natural’ state. Among the crumbling governments and strange technologies I’ve been exploring, Paolo Bacigalupi’s whirlwind novel, The Windup Girl, which won the 2010 Hugo and Nebula awards and many other honors, stands apart.

The narrative offers Bacigalupi’s startling vision of a world where oil has run out, ending the days of the Old Expansion; where companies like SoyPro, U-Tex, and AgriGen filled the world’s fields with genehacked crops so non-diverse they were wiped out by a couple of engineered plagues, where technology has lead to chameleonic cat infestations and 15-ton elephants are used as work animals, and where “windups”—New People engineered to be strong, beautiful, and instinctually subservient—are used to fulfill human whims.

But Bacigalupi doesn’t spend his time marveling over these strange events and making sure the reader knows precisely how they came about, since these events are history in this world; instead he places his narrative in the days of the “New Expansion,” when nations have rebuilt to some degree, when clipper ships and high-tech dirigibles have become commonplace again, when all technology—from crank-fans to treadle-computers—is powered by human energy, and when civil wars and political coup d’états are again concerns as big as the food supply. He evokes a world that has, at least somewhat, adapted to its own end, and is fighting to survive another.

While this level of complex world-building seems overwhelming at first, Bacigalupi achieves a sense of causality and wholeness in his new world. The reader is not bogged down with superfluous details and explanations of “what went wrong” and “how stuff works now,” but is rather immersed in a completely fresh era and place which may take some getting used to, but is tangible and constant. By containing his narrative in Bangkok, Thailand, Bacigalupi shows how the worldwide events have radically affected this microcosm, allowing him to reasonably hint at the struggles the rest of the world is facing without writing a 1200 page novel.

He also gives a multi-faceted view of the Bangkok microcosm, as the narrative rotates among four main characters—Emiko, the mysterious ‘windup’ of the title; Anderson Lake, a ‘calorie man’ spy sent by the megalithic AgriGen to seek out Thailand’s seedbank in hope of “generipping” its riches; Tan Hock Seng, a former shipping king and “yellow card” (Chinese refugee), who schemes to regain his former wealth and status; and Captain Jaidee Rojjanasukchai of the Thai Environment Ministry, called “The Tiger of Bangkok” for his fierce dedication to the environmental health of the city he loves. These four are joined by an array of supporting characters just as diverse (but not to worry, Bacigalupi’s taken care to give them memorable names, e.g. “Dog Fucker”).

But the true protagonist of the story is Bacigalupi’s city of Bangkok, or Krung Thep, depending on the narrator’s nationality. He has clearly done his research on the challenges facing present-day Thailand, and offers a vision of a struggling nation’s capital fighting rising sea levels and rampant disease mutations. While each of the human characters fight for their own interests and reveal their own dark sides, it’s this hopeful, but broken city in a strange and broken world that the reader comes to care for most in the end.

While I’m partial to as many characters as one can stuff into a story, some readers might find the story crowded; likewise, Bacigalupi’s constantly shifting narrative, and one particularly daring perspective shift, might contradict expected storytelling ‘rules’. However, these characters—each of different ethnicity and social standing, each with their own complex loyalties and desires—are one of the elements that set this story apart from other speculative fiction or futuristic novels.

The Windup Girl isn’t strictly a cautionary tale (though one might wish certain FDA officials would read it), and it’s not a trip through one writer’s imaginative paranoia, either. The novel is Bacigalupi’s vision of our world in a possible future—a frightening, exciting, and even sometimes hopeful vision of what happens when resources are abused, communities taken for granted, and everyone—deserving or not—gets what is coming.


Lydia Melby is the incoming fiction editor at Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment