Oct 26, 2009

YetiReview: The Windup Girl

21 Words or Less: Bacigalupi's debut novel delivers on the promise of his early work with a complex portrait of an environmentally influenced future Thailand.

Rating: 5/5 stars

The Good: Bleak but believable future setting that begs for further exploration; a diverse set of interesting characters that are human, sympathetic, and unique; Prose conveys complex technological and cultural details in an elegant manner that reads amazingly well.

The Bad: A fair bit of Thai words had me running to Google on a frequent basis; there aren't any more Bacigalupi novels to read offhand.

There's a reason Paolo Bacigalupi's name came up the most when discussing promising new authors. To understand why, you don't need to look any further than The Windup Girl, Bacigalupi's debut novel. Set in a future Thailand that struggles to survive in a world devastated by pandemic and crop failure, The Windup Girl depicts five characters who are poised to influence the country's future whether they realize it or not. As their actions weave together through the complex tapestry of the future setting, Bacigalupi creates a story that both excites and frightens.

The Windup Girl is part of the new wave of environmentally influenced science fiction that places one foot in the future and the other squarely in the past. Anticipating the end of cheap energy and global resource shortages, these novels are equally recognizeable and difficult to accept. In The Windup Girl, the advancements of genetic manipulation of viruses and seedstock, hyper-evolved animals built for performance, and even humans scientifically engineered for beauty and obediance are balanced out by the regressions resulting from the end of cheap energy. A return to animal labor, the expense of communication or computation, the financial power represented by dependable electricity, and even subtle touches like a scarcity of ice. One especially poignant scene shows a team of poor workers running up flight after flight of stairs only to serve as ballast weight for the rich man's elevator. All of these details taken together makes the world feel exceedingly real, moving into the future while retaining the links to the past.

My only complaint about Bacigalupi's constructed world is that I want to see more of it. I want to travel Europe's great cities to see what they've become, return to an America originally built upon bottomless wells of oil that have since run dry, and see if the pristine jungles of South America still survive. This setting begs for more stories, and I hope we get them particularly if they are as expertly crafted as The Windup Girl.

It's not only Bacigalupi's setting that impresses, it's his characters. He expertly maintains half a dozen points of view characters without resorting to anything that feels overly stereotypical on contrived. There is more (and better) characterization in The Windup Girl than some books twice as long with half the number of characters. Each character is fully realized with their own motivations, history and failings. I would warn you that if you are looking for black-and-white conflict, this isn't a book for you. These are realistic people, not comic-book characters. They aren't perfect but they are human (even the ones that aren't). I'm tempted to get into more specific details but I'd rather let you get into the characters yourself.

The one thing I think that would benefit the book would be the inclusion of an index for the many Thai words. A lot of them you could guess at but the early chapters were a little jarring as you tried to suss out the meaning of the Thai slang. I would draw comparisons to Ian McDonald's Brasyl in terms of cultural details. The Windup Girl is full of them, from big picture regional politics and religious conflicts to more subtle details like clothing choices and food items. Similar to the little touches that connect the present to the future, these cultural details link the words on the page to a real place.

In fact, I would say that Ian McDonald's Brasyl is the closest thing to The Windup Girl in the last few years. Except that this book is better. Where Brasyl and similar books focus on the cultural details or the delightful little world they've built, they often do so in a way that's a little bit too much infodump or not quite enough plot structure. Bacigalupi wraps all of these brilliant pieces into a cohesive package that reads effortlessly and with a literary style uncommon in genre fiction. It's got all of the complexity you would expect from genre fiction but without any of the heavy reading. It's hard to describe exactly what Bacigalupi does, or how exactly he does it (if I knew I'd be writing right now) but it works.

If it isn't clear to you by now (or the 3 week wait after I finished the book), I had a incredibly hard time writing this review. I simply can't exactly illustrated why The Windup Girl resonated the way it did with me. The simpliest way I can put it is that Paolo Bacigalupi has written a novel that delivers everything I look for in science fiction and more.

Go read this book.


  1. I'm happy to see your review. I had been waiting on this to come in to my library, got it, and then didn't finish it. Admittedly, I got a little bogged down by all the details. I'm returning it to give other people a try at it, and will try reading it again myself in a few weeks. I have been recommending it to some people I know, though, based on the reviews I've read.

  2. I'm not necessarily surprised. Even though I said it reads effortlessly, it's still heavy, if that makes any sense. All of the actions are very clear and very well written but they are still complex and a little depressing.

    I took my time reading it as well and found I enjoyed it more and more with each page. I think thats a trait common to multiple PoV books and the decreased page count per character. You simply get to know the characters more slowly than you would in a single character book.


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