Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen's calorie representative in Thailand. Under cover as a factory manager, he combs Bangkok's street markets in search of foodstuffs long thought to be extinct. There he meets the windup girl - the beautiful and enigmatic Emiko - now abandoned to the slums. She is one of the New People, bred to suit the whims of the rich. Engineered as slaves, soldiers and toys, they are the new underclass in a chilling near future where oil has run out, calorie companies dominate nations and bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe. And as Lake becomes increasingly obsessed with Emiko, conspiracies breed in the heat and political tensions threaten to spiral out of control. Businessmen and ministry officials, wealthy foreigners and landless refugees all have their own agendas. But no one anticipates the devastating influence of the Windup Girl.
This astonishing debut novel was named 9th best book of 2009 in TIME magazine. It won the Nebula award for Best Novel, was joint-winner for the Hugo award for Best Novel (a tie with China Miéville's The City and The City [which we've already read] and a plethora of other awards. It has been nominated for the 2010 British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel, results pending.
What Did We Think?
The first thing to point out is that despite the emphasis on Anderson Lake in the above synopsis, this novel doesn't really have a protagonist. There is no set "main character" but rather an ensemble cast of multiple characters whose lives intertwine and crossover to varying degrees. Another thing to note is that none of these characters are what we could call "good guys", there are no heroes in Bacigalupi's world. By the end of the novel we felt sorry for pretty much everyone because whilst there are no truly good people there are no truly evil people either (except perhaps the faceless organisations behind the scenes). The character development was subtle and effective. Despite hopping from character to character we never lost track of where we were or what was going on, something helped by the novel's strong pacing.
It was not universal praise as far as the characters were concerned however. The author's emphasis on Emiko (the eponymous Windup Girl) as a sexual object was hard hitting, especially in the rape scenes, but understandable. However, there were moments when we're alone with the character, inside her mind, and this emphasis on sexuality continues. This was problematic as it sends confusing messages to the reader about how they should feel about Emiko. The worst instance of this was the "showering" scenes on the roof top where the flow of water and soap is described too sensually, detracting from the fact that this girl has just been violently and horrifically sexually assaulted and raped. That said, it was argued that Emiko's is the most effective character arc, that she grows more than any other character and, from some perspectives, comes closest to having a happy ending at the close of the novel as she is offered a possibility for something she never dreamed possible [he says edgily trying to spoil anything for those who have yet to read it].
This is a dystopia, the word biopunk has been bandied around, and it bears more than a passing resemblance to Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (discussed by this book club already) thematically at least. More than anything this is a capitalist dystopia with layers of big business dominance, union politics, and the kind of arrogance we've come to see from our own capitalist leaders. This is also a rare example of a trade war being made to sound interesting in fiction.
Overall, The Windup Girl is a wonderfully written book, which evokes place and mood with a skill far beyond most debut novelists. It has interesting and relevant themes and realistically flawed characters that we can enjoy. Whilst almost everything is kept in a morally grey area (as in most dystopian fiction) - with the possible exception of Jaidee who casts a long shadow on the plot, despite being dead for most of it - this allows the reader to enjoy the plot without feeling put-upon and to form their own opinions. Bacigalupi mixes real science with touches of magical realism (the Cheshires, the ghosts) and a flavour of the far-east that comes across as genuine.
Votes were as follows: 1, 7, 8, 8, 8 ,8, 9, 9, 10