The Windup Girl by Paolo Bagicalupi is a 2009 novel of dystopian future, a world where an advanced level of genetic crop manipulation has produced two almost-cataclysmic results – the development of advanced and destructive disease strains (it’s left to the reader to decide whether these strains have formed through evolution, or have been synthesised) and a global monopoly on the gene patents of disease-resistant fruit and crops.
The story itself takes place in Thailand, one of the few strongholds of meaningful resistance against the monopolisation of the “calorie” companies – the only reason they have held out successfully is through the aid of defected geneticist and the possession of a massive seed bank, thousands of genetic samples of pre-manipulation and disease-free plant material that can be used as genetic stock for the generation of “fresh” produce lines.
That’s not to say Thailand is without problems, though. Corrupt to the core, two government factions struggle for power over the other, primarily concerned with the largely insular Kingdom’s strict trade and customs systems, while various underworld and street factions take their share and hold de facto sway over the industrial sector and the streets themselves.
Stuck in the middle of it is a cast of disparate characters: Anderson Lake, operative of a calorie company on the hunt for the elusive seed bank location; Hock Seng, survivor of an Islamist purge of Malaysia and foreman in Lake’s cover operation, an experimental spring factory; Jaidee, Tiger of Bangkok, incorruptible Captain of the White Shirts – the enforcement arm of the Environment Ministry; Kanya, Jaidee’s second-in-command; and Emiko, the titular Windup Girl, a genetically-modified, vat-grown, built for pleasure but ingrained with specific, controlling flaws – the irresistible urge to obey, the staccato motion of her muscles – dumped as an economic sacrifice by her owners and found at the start of our story being debased on-stage in a Thai sex show.
I should start with what’s good about the novel. I enjoyed it, for a start, and read through the entire thing in almost a single sitting during a day’s relaxation after the start of my Christmas holiday. It’s not a difficult read for anyone willing to familiarise themselves rapidly with the jargon of a world based on biotech and genetic tinkering – in fact, I found the Thai words slipped into things more jarring than the tech-speak – and the characters are readily sympathetic if not exactly angelic in their respective agendas.
The writing, too, is excellent. Stirring, evocative imagery: just the right amount of research in there to give the world shape, colour, tone, and not so much that you feel like you’re getting a lecture. The author skips lightly over action sequences and fights, and rightly so – the few times that more detail is required, things take a treacle-slow turn for the worse and you find your eyes skipping description just to find out what’s actually going on.
For all that, though, the plot builds nicely, both in the macroscopic scene-by-scene flow of things and the overarcing build of pressure as the government factions kick off a battle of escalating wills. If anything it peaks a little too early on, and the final lifts feel shallow compared to the city’s implosion at the two-thirds mark.
On the downside, it’s hard not to make obvious comparisons to superior work. I am, if anything, a child of my influences, and it would be disingenuous of an author to present such a postmodern work without expecting readers to sit and pick parts apart.
The biggest problem I had with the entire thing was the Windup Girl herself. She’s a mish-mash of imagery, a sex doll inconceivably gifted with the ability to move at superhuman speeds, to break all genetic and social codes programmed into her and self-emancipate. Granted, she’s pushed hard on that journey, but it still feels convenient, a little too inspired towards producing an image instead of something that fits into the plot. One second she’s an alien machine-person, loathed, reviled, desired, punished for her existence, next thing she’s punching people in the throat and moving with a fluidity and grace that Pris couldn’t quite manage even with a male stunt double. Near the end she pulls the joint of an elbow apart catching herself on a balcony and in that long, drawn-out moment dangling above the dark alley you can’t help but recall Major Kusanagi’s cyborg body just plain giving up the battle between her irresistible will and the immovable lid of a spider tank.
Taking the wider view, the entire book is good, but more than anything else it makes me want to read The Quiet American again. Greene’s prose is more clipped, less vibrant, but nevertheless the simmer of his plot is more subtle, more controlled. Very little happens that the reader doesn’t experience first-hand in Windup Girl, and given the controlled, corrupt nature of the various factions at work it might have been more fun to have more reaction, more subtlety to events. I realise that’s not a fashionable publishing view – the here and now is very much in vogue – but it’s the immediate difference that sets The Quiet American apart as a classic and denies the Windup Girl similar status.