The Windup Girl
by Paolo Bacigalupi
2009 Nebula Winner for Best Novel
After digesting The Windup Girl for a bit I've come to a conclusion: it is the most cynical SF novel I have ever read. There's a lot of cynical SF out there especially since post-apocalypse has been used often enough that it has become its own subgenre but The Windup Girl is so far beyond that cynicism. I came to this conclusion while mulling over if one of the two characters in the novel who are given a heroic role was supposed to come across as a reactionary, power abusing xenophobe as he did to me. And then I realized that he was because this is a novel about how screwed up and self-destructive humanity is even when doing the right thing and how we'll still be screwed up and self-destructive in the exact same ways as the world caves in around us.
After cheap fossil fuel runs out and environmental shifts ravage the world the people of the world retreated to their own borders. While energy may have become much more expensive the knowledge from before that that collapse still exists and so it is used to develop new food stocks that can maintain the world. The booming biological science also gives way to new forms of biological warfare as rapidly mutating diseases bloom in the results and nations are bought by companies that unleash blights to destroy crops and then sell seeds that can resist them.
Thailand has managed to remain independent of outside influences by having a seed bank of old crops that they can use. A representative of one of those aggressive companies is looking for that hidden treasure trove of genetic material since it can expand their own genetics division but the company's influence is so despised that he remains undercover as a foreign investor in a factory. Thailand's borders are guarded by the environmental ministry; a corrupt police force overseen by a zealot who would burn anything foreign out of the nation at any cost. The trade ministry is corrupted by foreign influences and wants to break the power of these policemen in order to bring in outsider. And caught in the middle of this power struggle is an artificially grown Japanese woman who was abandoned when her former owner left.
I'm getting this out of the way first: the worst part of the book is the titular wind-up girl. She's outright creepy fetish material; a Japanese sex slave who is bred to obey the orders of any man and is graphically raped repeatedly through the book (hello, Google hits). I understand what Bacigalupi was trying to do with character since she's there to show the horrors of people becoming things that are built. He didn't have to do this as a sleazy magazine story. Fortunately despite being the title she's the smallest part in the book.
Where Bacigalupi is incredibly strong is presenting all of his major characters in way that makes their bad decisions make sense. So the glory seeking policeman who plays up his role as protector of the people as he's undermining the people he should be protecting has a loving family and has tunnel vision with regard to protecting the country. There's a refugee from racial strife who embezzles, hides vital information that would make him look bad, and is willing to murder but it's because he instinctively knows that Thailand is unstable and could erupt into the same violence that killed everyone he knew. There isn't a character in the novel who isn't a broken person in some way and that makes the collision course that they are set on interesting.
The plot doesn't really require the after the oil crash setting to work. The problems Thailand manifests in the novel are the exact same ones that any developing nation has these days. Even the real world Thailand is currently undergoing the same self-destructive factional struggles. This works to Bacigalup's advantage since as I read the book I felt that he had a stronger grasp of the rhetoric around the issues he uses than the actual science. So by just using those issues as a backdrop and using a cynical all sides are right about their worst possible results he avoids turning The Windup Girl into a preachy political screed. The message seems to be to pick your poison because either way you're dead.
I found the novel tough to read initially since Bacigalup spends a long time building his characters before the plot starts to move. It's nearly the half way point before signs of a genuine plot show up and before that each character seemed to be wiggling through their tiny, barely connected subplots. Once the plot does start moving it goes quickly though.
I have to say that I found The Windup Girl to be interestingly subversive. A superficial reading could leave someone with the impression that it was just another story about fighting the corporate overlords with a side of how organic farming will save us all. A closer look makes it evident that Bacigalup is not telling that simple of a story; there's the potential for good mixed in with all the bad that is done. Bacigalup just seems to think that mankind will always waste the potential for that good. Even as you sympathize with the characters they are also destroying themselves. That makes this an intriguing and challenging book that I'd have to recommend.