In the most recent 111th congress, representatives discussed and argued new laws concerning regulation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) as food (for instance, should cloned animal meat be sold and consumed and if so should it be labeled?), a carbon emissions trading scheme (also known as Cap and Trade) where polluters trade carbon credits as an incentive to lower carbon emissions, green jobs to help with the United States jobless rate all the while dealing with radical Islam and its rise in the Middle and Far East. Proponents of these regulations asked us to imagine a world where global warming cause sea levels around the world to rise, where GMO foods are the norm and unanticipated damaging side effects cause food shortages and possibly contagions and oil and other non-renewable resources are no longer in abundance. Fortunately, we don’t have to imagine this world. Paolo Bacigalupi, Hugo and Locus award winning author, has done it for us.
The Windup Girl
by Paolo Bacigalupi
Night Shade Books
The Windup Girl is set in a future Thailand where steep walls are all that hold back the rising seas, where gene-ripping (using genetic material from food to create genetically modifying foods) has led to terrible food shortages as meddling with the food sources has led to several incurable defects that not only destroy the crops but also infect humans virally, and where countless refugees live after leaving certain death in China after an Islamic revolution and subsequent purge. Gone are the empires and nations of our time, replaced instead by powerful corporations that hold power by constantly creating new versions of food that the starving world needs. The Thai Kingdom is one of the final South Asian nations still independent of the militant corporations and their quest for dominance.
If the setting alone doesn’t set Science Fiction fans salivating then consider the characters and their actions to the terrifying future setting. Bacigalupi adds murder, revolution, countless “gun” fights (with weapons that use springs to shoot spinning discs instead of bullets,) racial and religious tension, the mob, and more all surrounding one unassuming windup girl, a genetically modified person (called New People,) held captive and sexually abused nightly for the pleasure of a curious mob at a seedy bar.
When tensions between two powerful government agencies rise to the tipping point, the windup girl becomes the key player in the future of the Thai Kingdom as she struggles to rise above her genetic programming and secure her freedom.
The setting is timely and filled with social commentary without being heavy handed. Like good Science Fiction should, The Windup Girl sets about asking the question of what if as a way of warning us of the possibilities. This book isn’t about taking positions on current debates and laws. Instead it takes for granted that the worst imagined has happened. Now what?
Not an easy book to access, Bacigalupi uses language and social customs that fit perfectly in the Thai scenario and setting. Unlike movies like the Prince of Persia where Caucasian actors play Persian characters and speak with weak English accents, The Windup Girl is authentic. I was never once startled out of the narrative by an out of place or time phrase or word used. Once past the steep learning curve, the book really hits its stride as the several forces in the story align against each other and characters are revealed for whom they really are and who they work for. The last hundred pages are breathtaking. The conclusion is uplifting and terrifying at the same time. It will stay with you long after you put this book down.
The Windup Girl is an excellent work of literature that should find itself on a short list of modern must reads in the same vein as venerable classics such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 (while at the same time being somewhat more entertaining.) A must read.