Saturday, June 26, 2010

Book Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Baciqalupi

Publication Date: 2009 in US


Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen's Calorie Man in Thailand. Under cover as a factory manager, Anderson combs Bangkok's street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history's lost calories. There, he encounters Emiko...

Emiko is the Windup Girl, a strange and beautiful creature. One of the New People, Emiko is not human; instead, she is an engineered being, creche-grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich in a chilling near future in which calorie companies rule the world, the oil age has passed, and the side effects of bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.

What Happens when calories become currency? What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits, when said bio-terrorism's genetic drift forces mankind to the cusp of post-human evolution? Award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi delivers one of the most highly acclaimed science fiction novels of the twenty-first century.

Joshua's Take: 4.5/5☆

Why I picked up the book: because it's winning every speculative fiction award, and I have enjoyed some of the author's previous work. Seriously check out his short story collection, Pump Six. It'll blow your mind.

There are some books that after reading the first 25-30 pages, a reader can sit back and go, "yeah this a damn entertaining read." You just know it, you feel it in your bones as the words fly by, you sitting alone with a Cheshire grin on your face. However, there also some times, far more rarely, some books that after just reading the first 5 pages a reader can sit back and go, "wow, this is amazingly well written. I'm about to embark on a really special journey here." Paolo Baciqalupi's The Windup Girl is such a book.

Winner of numerous awards including most recently the prestigious Hugo award, when I first sat down to read The Windup Girl I thought I was prepared- prepared for a dark dystopian story of a poor robotic windup girl and the world she lives in. What a joke. I wasn't prepared for anything that came. The Windup Girl is an amazingly well crafted read. It's dark, brutal, poetic, imaginative, both terrifyingly tragic and yet somehow hopeful and unlike most anything you've ever read. It's words just get under your skin, it's characters stand just outside your sight-line. You can smell the streets of dystopian Thailand featured in this book, you can see the stagnant and grimy air as people walk around doing anything to survive, because in the world of The Windup Girl, survival is the best anyone can hope for. It's entirely science fiction, a world of Steampunk and what many are now calling Biopunk (environmental and biotechnology science fiction). It's easy to see why this book has been nominated and has won so many awards, deservedly so, and yet as I closed the book, as I took out my bookmark and looked at the cover for a final time, lovingly caressing it, the one thought that kept popping up in my head was, "this is easily one of the best books I've read all year and I doubt I can recommend this book to most people. Who can I recommend this too?" Why did such thoughts swim around in my head? Because this is one damn uncomfortable read.

The story here is split into four main narratives: one of the calorie man spy in Anderson Lake, a white foreigner or farang, looking for a new strain of fruit so his company can further use it to subjugate humanity. Another in a fallen man from Malaya called Hock Seng, a yellow card, one refugees of the lowest of the low in Thailand who once had it all, but had it all taken away when his family, his tribe were wiped out in a religious cleansing. Another, a Thai hero and "whitshirt" named Jaidee who just wants his country to reach the heights he believes it deserves. He is like a blind avatar living in a kaleidoscope world. And lastly, the heroine, our one and only true hero in Emiko, the windup girl, a Japanese robot companion abandoned on the tepid and humid streets of Bangkok, with no owner, a toy, a being no one considers human, who is forced into prostitution by her new owner, a freak show in a freakier world. Who finds hope in the solace that there is a place for her kind, a world with no owners. All four narratives intertwine, as each character's world constantly collides with one another, changing each others futures and fortunes forever.

The one thing I can say about this book is that it isn't a nice read. If this were a film I think I would have turned and looked away numerous times. It's just has some truly unpleasant scenes, horrifyingly so, and yet it's prose is so captivating, it's tragedy so tragic that you can't look away and continue to read on. In the end you have to wonder if anyone really got what they deserved, because it's a world where all the characters are evil, although it's a more evil world that begets evil, and the only truly good, honest and hopeful character is the poor windup girl, and in the end, does she really get everything she deserves? There's just so much here, so many questions about humanity, about greed, about what it means to be a thoughtful and caring soul, about being human, so many things that will keep readers glued, keep them coming back to sentences, re-reading, just a damn amazing read, and one so brutal and honest that I'm sure many will be turned off, disliking it. That's fair. It's clearly not for everyone's tastes. But if you have an open-mind and a high tolerance for pain (I literally found myself sweating as I read sentences from time to time, the prose is just that invasive), then I think you will be greatly rewarded by one of the truly amazing works in recent speculative fiction. But all that brings me back to the original question I had after I had just finished with the book, "who can I recommend this too?"

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