The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Reviewed by Niall Harrison

The Windup Girl cover

1.

The best and worst part of The Windup Girl is the windup girl.

Emiko is an engineered human. Among other advantages, she has greater than normal cellular protections against cancer, perfect eyesight, and an extended lifespan. But because her purpose is to delight others, she also has some purely aesthetic modifications—a reduction in the number of pores in her skin to make it smoother, for example, with the consequence that in the heat of twenty-second century Bangkok (where The Windup Girl is set) she literally overheats, unless she carefully limits her activity, or is supplied with regular ice-packs. She is also sterile; and to mark her out, lest she blend in among "normal" humans, her movements, like those of all her kind, are—well, like a windup doll: jerky, unnatural, "stutter-stop flash-bulb strange" (p. 35).

Most importantly, we are told she is engineered for obedience: "New People serve and do not question" (p. 36). It's in her genes. Intended by her Japanese creators to be the ideal assistant, she was discarded, and is now kept by a wealthy Westerner as an amusement for himself and those who visit his establishment. Emiko is now a toy; a whore; a slave. She is raped for the entertainment of others on a regular basis:

She can feel the crowd's eyes on her, a physical thing, molesting her. She is utterly exposed.

[...]

Kannika grabs her again. She has disrobed now and has a jadeite cock in her hands. She shoves Emiko down, pushing her onto her back. "Hold her hands," she says, and the men reach out eagerly, grip her wrists.

[...]

Kannika's fingers join the jade between Emiko's legs, play at Emiko's core. Emiko's shame builds. Again she tries to turn her face aside. Men are gathered around, close, staring. More crowd behind, straining for a glimpse. Emiko moans. Kannika laughs, low and knowing. She says something to the men and increases her tempo. Her fingers play in Emiko's folds. Emiko moans again as her body betrays her. She cries out. Arches. Her body performs just as it was designed—just as the scientists with their test tubes intended. She cannot control it no matter how much she despises it. The scientists will not allow her even this small disobedience. She comes. (pp. 37-8)

The blunt wrongness of this scene and the others like it—and it’s quite clear that the continuing obvious and patriarchal nature of the social order is one of the problems facing Bacigalupi's future—is equalled in intensity only by Emiko’s eventual angry rejoinder. Neither aspect is sensationalised; to the contrary, the book ends up betraying us much as Emiko's body betrays her. Throughout the novel, we alternate between being invited to share her experience, as above, and being made complicit with her exploitation, when she is seen through other eyes. And in the process, we are directed to the heart of The Windup Girl.

The negative first. The exploration of the submissiveness that shapes Emiko's responses in so many situations is, I think, not completely convincing. Take this response, which occurs in casual conversation: "She wills herself to resist, but the in-built urge of a New Person to obey is too strong […] He is not your patron, she reminds herself, but even so at the command in his voice she's nearly pissing herself with her need to please him" (p. 45). And compare it to a scene from another recent novel dealing with the psychology of genetically modified humans, Richard Morgan’s Black Man (2007). In that book, as in Bacigalupi's, one human strain is bred to be (sexually) submissive; and one of them describes her life in this way:

"You know what it feels like, Marsalis? Constantly testing your actions against some theory of how you think you might be supposed to behave. Wondering, every day at work, every time you make a compromise, every time you back up one of your male colleagues on reflex, wondering whether that's you or the gene code talking." A sour smile in Carl's direction. "Every time you fuck, the guy you chose to fuck with, even the way you fuck him, all the things you do, the things you want to do, the things you want done to you. You know what it feels like to question all of that, all the time?" (Black Man, p. 340)

There are, it's true, important differences between the two scenes. In The Windup Girl we get the direct, immediate experience; in Black Man we get a report. In The Windup Girl, Emiko is a pure-bred GM human; the speaker in the Black Man quote is the child of a variant and a regular human, rather than full variant stock, which might be expected to increase her uncertainty about what is her, and what is the genes. (But the man to whom she is speaking, who is a full variant, if of a different kind, replies: "Of course I do. You just pretty much described where I live.") Most importantly, the speaker in the above quote is not visibly marked in the way that Emiko is. She can pass, and consequently has been able to live a largely free life.

And yet I can’t escape the comparison—I think it will occur to most readers of both novels—and ultimately the self-doubt described in Black Man rings truer to me than Emiko’s self-loathing. What’s horrifying about the variant's predicament in Black Man is not that she knows her responses are engineered into her, but that she can’t tell whether a given response is "genuine" or not. In contrast, Emiko apparently can tell, or at least thinks she can; she just can’t overcome, or even challenge. And it’s hard to accept that Emiko can be alive and thinking and feeling and yet be unable to challenge her own reactions in the way the rest of us do all the time, every day. The fact that, later in the novel, she does successfully overcome her inhibitions does not make the initial contradiction convincing; it makes the transition unconvincing. As a friend put it to me, it makes Emiko feel like a short story character, rather than a novel character: an argument rather than a person.

Perhaps this is my flaw. It’s true that when Emiko is seen from the outside, the role of social factors in her identity—which could credibly induce the sort of mental controls seen above—is given more weight. "It's an odd thing," one character muses, "being with a manufactured creature [...] Does her eagerness to serve come from some portion of canine DNA that makes her always assume that natural people outrank her for pack loyalty? Or is it simply the training that she has spoken of?" (p. 181). But this, and other substantive considerations of how Emiko has been conditioned, come relatively late in the book, and the emphasis remains on the deterministic implications of genetics, on the in-built rather than inculcated, to an extent that I think can’t be supported by reality and isn’t compelling as an imaginative experiment at novel length. Bacigalupi’s treatment too often feels blunt where it should be nuanced, as in the nod to "canine DNA." And it doesn't help that though we are told there are a number of types of New People—dedicated soldiers, many-armed manual workers—Emiko is the only example of any of them that we see in the novel. (This is another contrast to Black Man, where the variants are the primary focus of the book, and the treatment is conscientiously more comprehensive.) It seems that we get no contextualization of her experience.

Another alternative is to perceive Emiko as some of the other characters do: alien, inextricably other, not human at all. But it seems to me that to read her as alien undercuts the novel. What's crucial about Emiko is that she is a human who is truly innocent of history. And as such, she has to bear scrutiny. We have to believe in her.

But there is a way to do this. We can give Emiko context by looking at the characters we do see around her. Consider, for instance, the peculiarly ecological way in which one refugee describes the struggle his people face: "They do not allow us to take Thai niches here" (p. 27). One of Bangkok's ecological guardians ("white shirts"), Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, describes the situation from the other side: Chaozhou Chinese are smart because they have "woven themselves fully" into society, in contrast to the Malayan Chinese who "arrogantly held themselves apart" (p. 117). He doesn't use the word niche, or adaptated, but both hang over his thoughts. Every character, in The Windup Girl, is aware of how tenuous their position is with respect to their environment; when Jaidee's deputy Kanya Chirathivat sees a bank of computers, "the amount of power burning through them makes [her] weak in the knees. She can almost see the ocean rising in response." It is "a horrifying thing to stand beside" (p. 215). But it's Emiko's rationalisations of her plight that turn most frequently and noticeably towards ecological language. "My niche is vanishing" (p. 218), is how she voices her fear when she goes on the run; and her successes are a result of "finally being true to her nature" (p. 248). We are all animals, says The Windup Girl; we are all made by nature and nurture, and because we make our world as well as our culture, we are all man-made. Emiko is simply more man-made than most, and there's nothing wrong with her that a change of perspective can't fix. When she finds a new niche, she is no longer the herky-jerky object of prejudice and ridicule. It's a small miracle: the Necker cube flips, for her and for us, and for the world of the book and the book, Emiko is fit.

2.

Of course, The Windup Girl is not only the story of the windup girl. Arguably, in fact, the problem with the title is that it obscures the extent to which this novel is about other people, and about the catastrophe-exhausted future in which it is set. Bacigalupi has visited this world twice before: first in "The Calorie Man" (2005), a proof-of-concept story if ever there was one, which yoked a perfunctory there-and-back-again plot to an exploration of how the world works, and how it has been hurt (climate change, depletion of natural resources, uncontrolled GMO spread); and then again in "Yellow Card Man" (2006), an exploration of how the world is lived at street level, and a howl of bitterness, frustration, fury, and pain. The Windup Girl brings these two approaches together, although not even the most unbearable moments of horror visited on Emiko can quite match "Yellow Card Man" for sheer force. But the result is one of the most urgent, textured science fiction venues seen this decade, in that respect easily worthy of being ranked alongside Ian McDonald's India or David Marusek's North America.

Given the oddness of the underlying economics, this may surprise. In the absence of oil—and of any real success with the renewable technologies we talk about today—and after a period of retrenchment, Bacigalupi's future has developed an energy economy based much more directly on calories. High-yield GM crops are fed to engineered work animals, which are in turn used to compress "kink-springs," which can be plugged into various machines at a later date and induced to release their potential energy in a controlled fashion. This much is familiar from the short stories. What The Windup Girl makes fully clear is how inspired this conceit is as an intensifier: a device to make explicit the link between food and power, and the extent to which possession of the latter is a function of possession of the former. Put another way, unlikely as it may at first seem The Windup Girl draws significant power from a sense of recognition, a sense that the issues facing this world are our issues, seen aslant. It is a conceit that demands stories both about those who have, and those who have not, because it implies a world too complex to be grasped by any individual. "We're like little monkeys trying to understand a huge jungle" (p. 315), thinks one character, late in the book.

There are, in addition to Emiko, four monkeys in particular to whom Bacigalupi pays attention. Anderson Lake is the kind of monkey you see often enough in science fiction: a company monkey—a calorie monkey, in a bastardization of the parlance of this novel, in the employ of a transnational biotechnology firm, home base back in the Midwest of the good ol' US of A. To anyone who asks, he's in Bangkok to develop a new and improved form of the kink-springs that supply most of this world's portable energy needs; in fact the factory he heads up is a cover for his real mission, which is to track down Thailand's seedbank, a real treasure-trove in a world as genetically impoverished as this one has become. Tranh, the Malay Chinese refugee protagonist of "Yellow Card Man" (his name changed by Bacigalupi, between story and novel, to the more ethnically appropriate Tan Hock Seng) is now Lake’s factory floor manager. Once a moderately prosperous businessman, Hock Seng provides the novel's street-level view; he's clawed his way up from the very bottom of the heap, but still craves a more lasting security above all else, and is determined in his pursuit of it. The new kink-spring technology may be a front for Lake, but for Hock Seng it's a way out. And then there are the two "white shirts," Jaidee and Kanya, members of Thailand's ecological police charged with protecting its borders against incursions of foreign pathogens or biomaterial. Jaidee, in particular, is something new under the sun in Bacigalupi's fiction, being a happily married man who takes joy in his work (even knowing that it is, as he puts it, "like trying to catch the ocean with a net" [p. 47]). Not that this stops him being, at times, a vicious bully, any more than it stops any of the other characters being venal or prejudiced. These are not virtuous characters; they do not live in virtuous times. Hock Seng damns the lazy Thai as enthusiastically as Jaidee and Kanya sneer at the dirty Yellow Cards, and everyone resents the farang—gaijin—yang guizi—depends who you ask—like Anderson Lake.

Bacigalupi is not always successful at keeping all these competing interests organically in motion; there are coincidences that stretch credulity, and the first chapter in particular struggles to both recapitulate the information provided at a more leisurely pace in "The Calorie Man" and set several other wheels spinning. But despite the slightly creaky plot, The Windup Girl is irresistibly readable for long stretches. What it does best, I think, is the frantic excitement of uncertainty. This Thailand is, we are told, one of the few Asian nations to survive the first collapse of globalization well enough to give themselves a shot at being at the forefront of a new Expansion. But its success is tenuous: Bangkok is now both a literal and metaphorical polder, with doughty levees holding out the ocean while the white shirts try to catch any ecological infiltrators, and the agricultural ministry try to wrestle with the resurgent clout of past colonizers, in the form of the economic power of the Calorie companies. Every twist in The Windup Girl's plot, it seems—whether it be the emergence of an infectious agent from Anderson's factory, or the new kink-springs being developed there, or the power struggle between the various factions in the Thai government—could lead to a crisis.

This is only credible because Bacigalupi's Bangkok is so tangible. His prose tends to the clipped, even the astringent, but the cumulative effect is to conjure a crowded, choking, living place, with an intricacy that cannot be captured by a review. A flavour of the city can be offered, however, at least as it is seen by Lake, the tourist:

Saffron-robed monks stroll along the sidewalks under the shade of black umbrellas. Children run in clusters, shoving and swarming, laughing and calling out to one another on their way to monastery schools. Street vendors extend arms draped with garlands of marigolds for temple offerings and hold up glinting amulets of revered monks to protect against everything from infertility to scabis mold. Food carts smoke and hiss with the scents of frying oil and fermented fish while around the ankles of their customers, the flicker-shimmer shapes of cheshires twine, yowling and hoping for scraps.

Overhead, the towers of Bangkok's old Expansion loom, robed in vines and mold, windows long ago blown out, great bones picked clean. Without air conditioning or elevators to make them habitable, they stand and blister in the sun. The black smoke of illegal dung fires wafts from their pores, marking where Malayan refugees hurriedly scald chapatis and boil kopi before the white shirts can storm the sweltering heights and beat them for their infringements. (p. 7)

To praise this writing, of course, is to be shadowed by the idea of authenticity, about which it's always a good idea to cultivate a useful anxiety. Authenticity is and should be only one part of the assessment of a literary work’s value, after all. But still, what we have here is a novel which, for all it is quite rigorously engaged with the legacies of colonialism and neo-colonialism, is written by someone who benefits from those legacies. Now, there are kinds of anxiety I don’t think are useful for reviewers: it does nobody any good to pretend that you don’t have an opinion as to how successful or not a book is; and I’d go so far as to suggest it’s actively unhelpful to allow an ungrounded non-specific anxiety to shape your response (as it might be: this is a depiction of an Asian culture written by a white man, so I can’t trust it). There are too many unknowns going into that sort of judgement. At the same time, I cannot and will not say that Bacigalupi’s depiction of Bangkok is "authentic." To the extent that the term has meaning when applied to a future Thailand, it is not something I can assess here. What I can say is that the depiction feels coherent, in the sense of being particular and detailed enough to be a convincing lie, in the manner of all good fiction; and that it does not seem to condescend, either to its characters or to its readers, by flattening or glossing its material.

To make another point about that passage, to say that The Windup Girl is environmental SF is to state the obvious: it is a novel that eschews the normal ease with which SF reinvents the world. Its future Earth is ravaged by processes that have already started, by humanity’s extension into, and modification of, just about every aspect of the environment; and its plot can be understood as the action of the feedback loops that sustain such interactions. But it strikes me that the kind of environmentalism on display here is relatively uncommon. It is very far, for instance, from the idealistic work of Kim Stanley Robinson, and much more relentless than Sherri Tepper’s caustic fables. Both Robinson and Tepper are shaped, I’d argue, by a sense that play and community are vital human qualities that offer a way to appreciate our environment; think of the role that comedy plays in the work of either. Bacigalupi’s viewpoint is much more tragic. The single most notable characteristic of his fiction is intensity—of vision, of tone, of emotion—and when it comes to The Windup Girl’s environmentalism, that manifests as urgency.

Or, perhaps, as horror. I owe the notion that Paolo Bacigalupi may be productively understood as a horror writer to Abigail Nussbaum, and there is undeniably something horrific about the ruthlessness with which evolution’s cold equations shape The Windup Girl. This a story fascinated not just by humanity's position as a remorseless shaper of its environment, but by the ways in which it is in turn remorselessly shaped by its environment, without release. In the terms used by John Clute (in A Darkening Garden [2006]), Bacigalupi is a writer of the Bound Fantastic; he writes stories that reveal their worlds as prisons. Perhaps this is true of any honest writer of recognition SF at the start of the twenty-first century—though "relevance" is another uneasy kind of praise for a novel to receive—because there's a good argument to be made that in the process of ruining our environment, all the human race is doing is building a prison.

Escape routes look thin on the ground. Late in the novel, a Western gene-hacker who's helped to prop up the Thai regime argues that the wheel can't be turned back, that adaptation is the only way forward. "We should all be windups by now," he says. "It's easier to build a person impervious to blister rust than to protect an earlier version of the human creature. A generation from now, we could be well-suited for our new environment." The alternative, he argues, is to "cling to some idea of humanity that evolved in concert with your environment over millennia" (p. 243), even though the environment has radically changed. This stings, because the novel constantly argues that this urge to adapt, to expand into—to conquer—new niches is the same urge that lies behind the capitalist and imperialist expansions of the last several hundred years. Thailand's agriculture minister, a supposed farang-lover, berates calorie man Anderson Lake—"Your people have tried to destroy mine for the last five hundred years. We have nothing in common" (p. 147).

And there is, these days, the question of finding an escape route for science fiction itself. The Windup Girl takes its best shot at this task: it is written with a feral conviction, and it provides fertile ground for discussion of many kinds, by many kinds of readers. There is little in it that, like Emiko, will not yield a different interpretation from a different perspective, and little in it that does not compell a reaction from a reader. In that sense it feels adapted. But it is also an unremittingly harsh work, and whether it can attract the sort of sustained, popular attention that its themes seem to demand, and that as a work of fiction it deserves, is anybody’s guess. Even at its very end, The Windup Girl offers no relief: rather, it thematically dovetails with an earlier Bacigalupi story, "The People of Sand and Slag" (2003), which features characters so divorced from their environment, so cocooned by sustaining technology, that their emotional responses are alien to us. Emiko is a stepping-stone to that future; and by the logic of The Windup Girl, so are we all. From our point of view, it's hardly an optimistic conclusion but it is, in The Windup Girl’s terms, a very human one, and I can't recall another novel that has articulated the same vision of what it means to be human in the present moment with the same force. It's that vision that insists that Emiko is human, and that she remains bound at the end of the novel: because we remain bound, and she is us; because at least for now, science fiction remains bound; and because, quite probably, so does our world.

Comments

Posted by Catoholic at December 2, 2009 6:13 AM:

I haven't read this novel, but have read several of Bacigalupi's short stories. Intense is indeed the word for his style. Your excellent review has convinced me I won't be missing much if I skip The Windup Girl. However, I'd like to raise two points / questions:

1) Thailand is the only nation in that part of the world that has in fact never been colonized by the West. I wonder if Bacigalupi was making some point by selecting it as the setting for his exploration of colonization-related themes? What do you think?

2) Naming the "wind-up girl" (i.e. sex robot) Emiko, an old-fashioned Japanese name, and making her Japanese seems peculiarly cack-handed, given that Western men in the real world do often tend to view Japanese women as, well, sex robots. Do you think Bacigalupi is unwittingly buying into this existing orientalist fantasy (seems unlikely given his PC cred), or was he making some ironic point?

I know tone is hard to get across on the internet but please be assured I'm not trying to play "gotcha" with this talented author, I'm honestly curious (just not curious enough to slog through the novel and find out for myself)!

Posted by Niall at December 2, 2009 7:50 AM:

Your excellent review has convinced me I won't be missing much if I skip The Windup Girl.

Damn! That wasn't my aim. I was hoping to convey that it's a tough read in a number of ways, but a fascinating, worthwhile one. Ah well.

To your points: I'm not sure Thailand was specifically chosen for that reason, but its status is crucial to the novel, so Bacigalupi certainly takes advantage of its history. As for Emiko, yes, I was struck by that as well. I suspect it was intended as ironic, but owing to my other reservations about her character I'm not sure that particular irony comes across as clearly as it might.

Posted by Catoholic at December 3, 2009 6:19 AM:

Glad to know I'm not the only one who has reservations about the character of Emiko!

I certainly didn't mean to suggest your review had put me off reading the book -- a bit of failed humor there. I did draw the impression that it would be a fascinating read. But for me, Bacigalupi's dramatic situations lack the spark that appeals to me as a reader. It's a shame, given that his ideas are intriguing, and well worthy of discussion,

Posted by SW at December 3, 2009 6:53 PM:

Like Catoholic, I think I'll be skipping this one. While men can certainly write convincing female characters and vice versa, the idea of a man writing from the perspective of a female sex slave who takes pleasure from being raped makes me intensely uncomfortable.

Posted by atsiko at December 10, 2009 1:13 AM:

Er... I think the phrase "takes pleasure" is a tad misleading. It is quite possible to stimulate an unwanted physical response, and your wording implies a conscious enjoyment that, to me, is not present in the scene or the character.


I'm on the fence about whether to read this one or not. On the surface, it seems like a very interesting comment, and there have been several glowing reviews. But there have also been indifferent or "read it for the concept" reviews. Maybe if I didn't already have such a long TBR list...

Posted by Soon Lee at January 3, 2010 2:28 AM:

A difference of opinion here:
I'd rate "The Windup Girl" in my top 5 best books of the decade. It's a magnificently realised setting, the characters are vibrant, including Emiko.

It is indeed distasteful, the fact of her nature, engineered to be submissive, her body's physiological responses tailored for the pleasure of others. What made Emiko's story compelling was her struggle against her genetic heritage, which goes to the heart of the nature vs. nurture question.

Posted by Alexander at January 4, 2010 12:40 AM:

Likewise, I found this book much higher quality than the review did. From the books I've encountered, easily the best genre work published in 2009, with a fantastic set of worlbuilding, pacing and complex moral engagement.

Posted by Niall at January 4, 2010 1:20 PM:

Oh, it will almost certainly be on my Hugo ballot; it's ambitious enough, and does enough well, for that. But by the token of that ambition it gets judged against a very high bar, and I still think it doesn't quite cross it.

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Posted by Bill at July 28, 2010 2:15 PM:

I just finished this book this morning and very much enjoyed it. It reminded me of BlindSight (Peter Watts) another Hugo Award nominee/winner with its bleak commentaries on human adaptation, corporate self-interest, peak oil, and environmental catastrophe.

BlindSight had the benefit, however, of anchoring itself from a single character´s perspective on the bottom of the sea-floor, a nicely hermetic location for creating a new world based on extensive biology and chemistry know-how. Windup Girl, on the other hand, really travels between geopolitical issues at the country level, with multiple and conflicting character interests. (That´s something that James Michener tried to do with 1000 pages, with limited success. At 200 pages, I think the author was overstretching himself). I guess that´s part of its appeal, drawing out a dense 21st century (?) history through 200 pages of impending civil war, but it also muddied my impression of what exactly Mr. Bacigualupi was trying to say. Is he warning us against free-trade? Genetically modified foods? Global warming? As you mentioned, the gene hacker suggests that we are obligated to adapt, as much through scientific engineering leaps at the chromosomal level as through millions of years of evolution. The thai authorities freely admit that without fee trade they would have no oil to keep their city afloat or grain to feed their population, and Anderson Lake talks about the global benefits of accessing the seed banks and staying ahead of the rapidly mutating diseases that are destroying food stores. These are fairly compelling statements against what initially seemed to be a manifesto against General Mills and Pfizer.

I guess I can see how Mr. Bacigualupi arrived from A to B, and I admire the journey, but I´m not entirely sure how this journey comments on where we are now.

Re: the subject of sex slaves; I was a bit put off at the transition from genetically directed sex-slave to autonomous assassin. It was too pat, too convenient a change and needed more justification.

Just my two cents.

Nice commentary by the way. I enjoyed reading it!

Posted by onion at August 14, 2010 3:48 PM:

I got to the first rape scene and stopped reading right there. I am a woman, but does it take a woman's perspective to get fed up with the sexism that is rampant in science fiction? I love science fiction, but c'mon, there are other ways of illustrating debasement, slavery, servitude and oppression. It is completely lazy to pick two of the most cliche constructS to illustrate debasement of a woman - the unwilling prostitute and rape.

For comparison, Bacigalupi chose to illustrate some of the same ideas for a male character in a much more...how should I say it, RESPECTFUL (although it was also stereotyped for a male) way. The Chinese man that escaped the genocide. He was a type of slave, who lost all respect, and who was toiling away at a capacity way below his abilities. All similar to Emiko. But Bacigalupi chose to show this by robbing the man of his MONEY, JOB, FAME, FAMILY, HOME AND CULTURE. Not raping him in front of a crowd. What a rote, unimaginative, cliche cop-out. And oh yeah, sexist. How do you totally humiliate a man? Take his job and his money and his fame. But that situation wouldn't do for a woman.

Posted by Niall at August 14, 2010 4:19 PM:

Interesting comment. I think there are two levels to the question of sexism in Bacigalupi's writing -- call it the specific and the general. The specific is the extent to which what he writes is critical of the sexism it depicts, or indulges in it. As the review suggests, I find myself with two competing perspectives on how successful Emiko is, and in the end can convince myself she works.

The general is, as you say, the extent to which what he writes repeats existing sexist patterns. There's no question that it does, but I'd argue that's precisely what it's intended to do, that Bacigalupi is interested in writing about an intensified version of a world -- our present world -- where those imbalances and oppressions exist. I'd agree with you that, at the moment, weighing sf that aims for this sort of recognition (or simply doesn't think through its goals) against sf that aims for an advocacy of something different and better, there's an imbalance in favour of the former. But while I can't fault anyone for finding The Windup Girl disappointing as representative of that trend, I don't think it's an invalid or dishonourable approach to sf per se, and I think The Windup Girl is a powerful example of its type.

Posted by fran at August 23, 2010 1:58 AM:

I agree with the woman who posted earlier that the rape scene was too much. I feel that this is thinly veiled porn or if not that extreme, the author gets off on that initial scene with the sex show. It is gratuitous. This is one more example of a basic, unimpressive author making such a splash amongst a dumbed-down audience.

Posted by Sand at August 26, 2010 1:38 AM:

I agree with Onion entirely -- I can't believe we're still beating the sexbot/sexworker trope to death in 2010 Scifi.

Niall, I found your review of this book much better than the actual book. Sure, there is sexual oppression in our world, and there would be in a future dystopia, as well. But to create a story in which, out of dozens of characters, hardly any are female, and then to make the only main female character a sexually abused sexbot feels both cliche and indulgent.

The plot in no way required her to be a sexbot. Hock Seng or any other character could have played her role at the pivotal moment. It could have been a New People worker drone quietly living amongst the Thai whose dream of getting out of the city was shattered.

Even if the character had to be a sexbot, the author could have portrayed her in some contexts other than sex (even sex workers spend most of the day doing or thinking about things other than sex). Instead of having sex in pretty much every appearance on paper, she (designed to be intelligent enough to be fluent in several languages) could have been scheming ways to arrange contacts or make money to get out on her own. Instead, she's just raped and raped and raped, sometimes with more or less pleasure depending on the partner.

She's never human to me. And as a lifelong lover of science fiction who happens to be a woman, I'm pretty damned tired of having to overlook again and again and again and again the failure of so many books and movies in the genre to include human women for whom sex is one aspect of their lives, not their whole existence.

But setting that aside, lest you think I'm only judging this book through one lens, I found the story and writing style to be mediocre overall. The characters all seemed like flat stereotypes and the (extremely) excessive use of sentence fragments made the prose choppy and unpleasant. The science in the story lacked internal consistency and was unrealistic (i.e. ice cubes twice a day keep her alive?). I just don't understand why this book has been praised to such a high extent.

I pushed myself through to the end because of all the rave reviews, but if this had been a midlist book, I'd have tossed it aside halfway through, and I wouldn't have missed much by doing so.

Posted by Niall at August 26, 2010 11:57 AM:

Thanks for the comment. Again, I can't fault anyone for not wanting to read, or being disappointed by, a book that contains the tropes The Windup Girl does -- the fact that I think it's a worthwhile exploration of those tropes doesn't change the fact that they are overexposed tropes. That said, there are a couple of points in your comment I'd challenge, or at least query. I consider Kanya to be one of the main characters, for instance, given that she's the viewpoint for numerous chapters, and instrumental in the novel's climax; I'd be interested to know why you don't think she qualifies. I think Emiko does do some of the things you wish for. While the scenes in which she is raped at the club may be written in an excessive manner, there are only two of them: one to establish how brutally she is treated, and one to trigger her rebellion. In between times she is proactive, going out into the city to try to find out about the rumoured colony for New People. And while I take the point about a preponderance of female characters whose lives are defined by sex, Emiko's arc is precisely about her escape from that definition. I do agree that if the novel doesn't convince you she's human, she becomes more problematic.

As for the prose, I don't remember a particularly high frequency of sentence fragments. I don't have my copy of the novel to hand, but I felt the quotes I used in the review were typical, and there aren't many fragments there; certainly not compared to a novel like, say, VanderMeer's Finch, which does use a very fragmented style.

Posted by Sand at August 26, 2010 7:34 PM:

I noticed the sentence fragments far more in the second half. I don't have the book in front of me but I'll look up some of them when I get home. I did find the prose smoother in the first half.

And you're right, Kanya does take on POV status halfway through the book, so there are two main female characters; it was a mistake to say Emiko was the only one. But Kanya's representation offended me as well.

When her leader, to whom she is second in command, decides to go on one last all or nothing potentially devastating mission in support of their cause, she says "Take me! I want to fight with you!" His reply : "No. I need you to watch my children." He then finds another (male) friend to go on his suicide mission with him.

What a slap in the face. It's hard to imagine Jaidee saying such a thing to a male second in command.

That pretty much killed any hope of my seeing her as a redemptive female counterpoint to Emiko.

Sure, she wasn't loyal, and Jaidee knew it. That would explain why he said no. But if she's too untrustworthy to fight by his side (as she's apparently been doing for some time, anyway), why would he put his children in her hands? Because she's a woman? It's absurd. And let's not go into making the fighter woman who's not a sexbot a lesbian...talk about beating your stereotypes to death- It felt to me as if he needed to make Kanya a lesbian so that she could have her own story, so that she could be unencumbered by hetero sexual relationships.

As for other adult women in the book, there are two. There is the dominant woman who repeatedly rapes Emiko in the club and there's Jaidee's wife. Neither is given much time in the story, but that does bring the ratio of (speaking) female sex workers to female non-sex workers in the book to 1:1, which seems pretty silly. There are dozens of speaking characters, but with so few normal women, the sexbot trope seems even more painful. Even Kanya is barely present during the first half of the book.

As for Emiko only being raped "on page" twice: just about every scene that references her does to in a sexual context prior to the assassinations. Anderson's approach is less brutal, but it's clear she's with him because he bought and paid for her. Most of the scenes she appears in in-between the two club rape scenes scenes are ones in which she's being prostituted to Anderson or to other men at the club.

Even when she's nearly murdered on the street, and then passes out because her body is overheating, seconds after she wakes up she's involved in steamy foreplay with Anderson. I had to laugh out loud at that. I can't imagine either character in this situation feeling like sex (though it helps that Emiko's clothes were "shredded" somehow during the chase, something Anderson notes while she lays corpselike and comatose in his arms, on the verge of death --- Seriously, he's thinking about sex here???).

You say Emiko was trying to go out into the city to find means to escape, but I never saw this happening even once. Maybe my memory is poor, but I did just finish this yesterday. The only person I recall her approaching about escape was her owner, who, shockingly, doesn't help her escape. I dont' recall her taking any other actions to escape. She doesn't save or hide money like Hock Seng, she doesn't try to find people she could contact or bribe on the street, she doesn't look for some other New Person to talk to.

She's supposed to be designed for intelligence. I'd expect her to approach people who know her and what she is first who might seem sympathetic to her. Out of all the other girls, bouncers, and bar tenders, probably there is someone who seems a bit sympathetic to her. Why is she so stupid that the only person she can think to ask for help in escaping slavery is her slave owner?

This isn't even getting into all the problems with having this character in the first place. First, although most technology we have today is too hard for people in this new world, they still manage to create New People? Well ok they are in the business of gene manipulation, but I think some very basic science would reveal that mixing a labrador's genes with a human girl's would not produce a very loyal/passive human, as the book frequently states is the case. The technology in this world didn't seem capable of sustaining all that would go into creating human beings who think and feel just what you want them to (if such a thing is possible at all, which I doubt).


I could go on quite a bit more from the feminist perspective, but I hate to do so because it implies that only through a feminist lens is this book bad. If you take out the sexbot, I'd just find it a dull read. The only reason I bothered to read reviews and comment about it is that I'm just absolutely baffled that this book won prestigious awards and so on. It has some good points but hardly seems Hugo or Nebula worthy to me.

Posted by Niall at August 27, 2010 12:59 AM:

You say Emiko was trying to go out into the city to find means to escape, but I never saw this happening even once.

Chapter nine. She goes out in search of information ("You have time. Not so much as you would like, but still, enough to ask questions. Slowly. Patiently. Do not betray yourself. Do not overheat.") As for "seconds after", you missed the "Darkness had fallen" that implies several hours passed. You also missed several other women, including Jaidee's mother in law, and the biologist Ratana (and it seems a bit unfair to exclude Mai from such a count just because she's young). Perhaps at this stage we should agree to disagree about the book.

Posted by Sand at August 27, 2010 5:42 AM:

I forgot -- she does ask one other person in the book where she could buy tickets to go north. Of course she ends that excursion in a sexual situation with Anderson. She makes no other attempts to get herself out but instead relies on the slaveowner or the man buying her services to do something for her.

Internal logic problems : running from her attacker causes her to pass out and nearly die in this scene. Later --- killing 8 people and then running away is no problem.

Maybe the biologist and mother in law had a line or two in the book - they certainly had minimal impact on the story.

Mai is a passive soul who, like Chaya, serves only to give some man in the story to change his actions to protect her. They play a minor role in a male character's story; neither has any other purpose in the book.

You're right, I guess we should just disagree. I don't think this book really warrants the time it would take to make a closer analysis of it.

You've put the most generous possible interpretation of this book into your review; you address the sexist trope but suggest the author is doing something interesting or new with it to subvert it. I disagree.


The strange horizons list of "stories we've seen too often" (in other words, please try not to send stories with these overused tropes) includes this :

"30. Brutal violence against women is depicted in loving detail, often in a story that's ostensibly about violence against women being bad.

b.The main reason for the main female character to be in the story, and to be female, is so that she can be raped."

CHECK

I have no problem with graphic sex or violence in fiction, if done well and with purpose, but I'll never be able to enjoy fiction guilty of 30.

Posted by Niall at August 27, 2010 9:03 AM:

She makes no other attempts to get herself out but instead relies on the slaveowner or the man buying her services to do something for her.

This is true as far as it goes, but I think it neglects (a) the fact that the book takes place over a short time frame (she is trying the easy options first), (b) the extent to which she is struggling internally against her instinct/conditioning during this period (not, as I say in the review, entirely convincingly, but nevertheless), and (c) that by the end of the novel she has killed one of those men and watched the other die, and is making her own way out into the world (only to end up with Gibbons, but in a context that is heavily ironised).

Ratana, I'd argue, has a more significant role in the book than either of the two women you initially listed, in that she has two substantive scenes with Kanya, is mentioned while off-screen many times, and is the person who diagnoses the plague.

The point I was trying to make in the first half of the review is that I'm conflicted about Emiko: I think she is at the same time a success and a failure; crudely, that in the context of the novel as a whole she is a success, and as a character on her own she is a failure. I still think that position is supported by the detail of the book, but it's good to keep thinking about it.

Posted by Jonathan M at August 27, 2010 10:40 AM:

I must admit, while I think the novel is ultimately quite profoundly unsatisfying as a novel, I don't see what the fuss is about the sexbot.

Yes, it's a woman who has been genetically engineered not merely to be submissive but to gain pleasure out of being humiliated and used... so?

Firstly, I took the representation to be metaphorical of the capitalist/neo-colonial system in general. The rich rape the powerless and the powerless come not only to accept it but to crave 'strong leadership'.

Secondly, I also took the relationship between those two characters to be a meditation upon the western image of the far east. Going by the usual grab bag of ethnic stereotypes, if you were going to have a naturally submissive woman then where else would she be from but Japan?

Both of these ideas strike me as perfectly fair game. Even if you want to go down the "white man writing about asian people" route, which I did when I reviewed the book, I genuinely cannot understand why this would be considered in any way unacceptable.

Racism, abuse, rape and exploitation take place all the time. If anything I would say that SF should be writing about them a hell of a lot more than it does and I think that this book could have gone a lot further than it actually did in this respect.

Posted by Andrew at November 27, 2010 8:48 PM:

I agree with the term "fragmented" as a criticism of TWG, but not because of the prose. TWG is an interesting but not entirely successful step from short fiction to not-very-short novel. Despite the well-drawn setting, the plot seems like a pretext to stitch together the various characters and their stories.

Some of the characters work well: Jaidee has already been mentioned. I don't find any of the female characters as convincing. Prize for worst character, though, goes to a male: the scientist Gibson, who gets quite a buildup, then gets lines about god and nature stuffed into his mouth by the author.

That said, I'm glad I read TWG. The setting worked well for me, and it is an interesting extrapolation of some trends already visible in the world.

I wish it hadn't been called The Windup Girl. That places too much attention on Emiko (e.g., in Niall's review) when the novel has several better characters. What should it have been called? Thais and Rippers? New Food, New People?

Posted by Nichole at February 22, 2011 3:08 PM:

I liked this novel, and I didn't really have a problem with Emiko as a character. Yeah, she's cliche, but I saw her as more of a metaphor than an actual person. The rapes she suffers and even the stock-character of a Japanese geisha spoke (IMHO) to the canibalization of the developing world by the industrial elite. Her submissivness reflects the world view of the elite.

Eventually, Emiko grows into Gibson's vision of the future of humanity. Her character begins to act, instead of being acted on. And her actions are pivotal to the plot.

Emiko survives in a hostile enviroment - once she breaks the chains of servitude. She suceeds when elites like Anderson Lake fail. I don't really see Emiko as a sexist character and I didn't think she was a sexbot. The graphic rape scenes wouldn't have been powerful if they weren't graphic, and frankly, every day young girls in the real world endure far worse. Those scenes needed that emotional impact to be effective.

I have to agree with Andrew that Gibson was my least favorite character. He kind of reminded me of H.G. Well's Doctor Moreau. His bursts of wisdom annoyed me.

I thought the White Shirts were very well done. The Tiger of Bangkok was probably my favorite character. I liked Jaidee and Kanya.

I take issue with the comment that Kanya was a sexist view of a woman. I thought her character was the most nuianced. She had the least cognative dissonance of them all. She knew she was corrupt, and she hated herself for it. In the end, she resovles her divided loyalties and becomes the New Tiger and saves the seedbank. She's the most pivotal character in the book.

As for Kanya being a lesbian... why shouldn't she be? Why is that sexist? Kanya's lover, Ratana the biologist, may only have a few lines in the book but she plays an important role. She's very much present in Kanya's motivation. This is mentioned several times.

So, from a feminist perspective, I didn't think this novel was sexist. I did think TWG was one of the better novels I've read this year.

Posted by Dennis at April 24, 2011 11:51 PM:

If I ever have to read about small pores again, I think I will jump off the balcony. I enjoyed the dialog between Niall and Sand far more than I enjoyed The Windup Girl. For the life of me I cannot understand why this novel won such praise and awards. By the by, does no one edit novels these days before they go to print?

Posted by Abby at September 7, 2011 7:42 PM:

I'm about two-thirds of the way through this novel, and I intend to finish it ... but only because I'm listening to it as an audio-book. I'm struggling with some believability issues, and the fact that none of the main characters are particularly likable. I have the sense that Bacigalupi is trying to manipulate these characters so the reader will warm to them, but in my case, it's not working. I can't see them as anything other than a slimy corporate salesman (Lake), a bigoted and self-absorbed refugee (Hock Seng), an egomaniacal bully (Jaidee), and a rather unbelievable male-fantasy-sexbot (Emiko).

I just wanted to jump in and say that Emiko is the ultimate male fantasy. She's cute, tiny, submissive, vulnerable, in constant peril, needing rescue, bio-engineered to give good sex, she has super-human powers, and she's ready to be eternally grateful to the first man who treats her kindly. Ugh.

It seems to me that a lot of male SF writers fantasize about super-human women (sexy, good fighters, intelligent, possibly with powers) who want nothing more than to please an ordinary human man. That's all they want. They're engineered for it. Aside from "The Windup Girl," I'm thinking of "Saturn's Children," but I could include TV shows, movies, and other books, hearkening back to "Stranger in a Strange Land."

Posted by Niall at February 7, 2012 7:15 PM:

If you've read this far, please also read these critiques of The Windup Girl.

Posted by Jim M at May 10, 2012 2:13 PM:

I bought Thw Windup Girl on the back of some very positive reviews along with 18 other sci-fi books just before Christmas 2011. I finished it a couple of weeks ago and of the 14 sci-fi I've read this year this come pretty close to the bottom for enjoyment.

Why?

> It's entirely unoriginal. Distopia/'new people' has been done many times before and much better.

> I tried hard to find characters I could empathise with, then sympathise with, then just be interested in their story and failed on all counts with all players.

> the base and vulgar violence/sex is entirely in character with the whole book and serves only to distance the reader from players

> the Thai setting and language is meaningless to me. A glossary of terms/common language may have helped

> re-hashing of tired/discredited enviro-memes is dull.

> the writer requires not that you suspend disbelief when reading, but part with your mental faculties and conscience.

The only worse books i've read lately I couldn't get past he first 10 pages due to atrocious writing style or Political correctness on steriods.

If sci-fi isn't about a critical/thoughfull and alegorical look at society then it should be a piece to stir the imagination - horrify or glorify i don't mind. The Windup Girl was niether for me.

Posted by Bratosin Cornel at June 7, 2012 5:33 PM:

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Posted by Jervey Tervalon at June 10, 2012 8:53 PM:

It's a compelling, provocative novel about a likely future. Sex explanation is a minor aspect of the novel, and yes, it's a function of human culture.

Posted by zilch at October 6, 2012 9:33 PM:

I'm about halfway through, but I don't think I'll make it any further. How could this book possibly have garnered the awards and accolades showered on it? Sure, the world is intriguing, the ecological message important, but it's so poorly written (flat characters, turgid prose describing banalities) and apparently not edited at all (I don't think I've ever seen so many typos in a printed book) that it's grindingly tedious to read. Sure, young authors should be encouraged, but shouldn't the Hugo and Nebula awards be about literary quality?

Posted by Ivona Poyntz at December 31, 2012 4:30 PM:

Great review. I enjoyed 'the wind-up girl' but a plethora of characters given equal 'show time' dilute the essence of 'primary characters' and we are left with a smorgasboard of unevenly fleshed out personalities with no clear purpose in the plot. I am still not sure how Hock Seng contributes to the overall plot.

Posted by I2Q at March 28, 2014 11:42 AM:

"The Windup Girl" is a fantastic read. I enjoyed the world-building of the author. It is such dynamic, desperate and vivid description of a collapsing world with a worsening environmental situation.

I really want to read a well made sequel to this because when I finished the book I wanted to keep reading. I was hooked.

Check out my blog at:
www.ink2quill.com

what a good book.


I2Q


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Niall Harrison (niall.harrison@gmail.com) has reviewed for publications including Foundation and The Internet Review of Science Fiction. He blogs at Torque Control.