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.


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