Book Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

This book came up on Amazon as a highly recommended (for me, and by hundreds of other reviewers) title in the science fiction category.  It was billed as a gritty dystopian work set in a post-global warming apocalyptic Thailand, where man has been overrun by both his hubris towards genetically engineered crops and creatures, and his penchant for polluting the world with carbon emissions.  I bought it and was pleased with the first chapter or so, as the world was vivid and had an obvious steam-punk feel to it what with its treadle powered computers, algae baths for providing oil, and “kink springs” which provided kinetic energy to trains, cars, and factories.

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However, it seems like Bacigalupi was consistently overtaken by his own beautiful writing.  His breathtaking and vivid descriptions of Bangkok, now ringed by massive levees to beat back the rising tides of Globally Warmed oceans and plunged into a three way tug-of-war between a mysterious Queen, a greedy trade group, and a fanatical “White Shirt” regimen devoted to the ongoing sustainability of the kingdom were muddled by the absence of a clear plot.  In fact, the setting continues to sound amazing when I write this, and yet, while the characters involved become decently developed throughout the story, at the end of it all, you’re left with this overwhelming feeling of “who cares?”.  While writing this review, I read that Paolo Bacigalupi made his name writing short stories, and all of a sudden, the entire book and it’s lack of plot made perfect sense.The “windup girl” noted in the title is in fact a prostitute genetically engineered to be the perfect plaything for the pre-apocalypse rich.  Her character is probably the weakest point of the entire book.  Her wish for a world of other windups to live in beyond the walls of Bangkok is I guess the main theme of the book which earned it a comment of “It sounds just like the movie A.I.” when I was describing it to a friend.  At first I fought this comparison but in the end, it fits remarkably well.  Another friend mentioned that someone he knew had read the book and had initially disliked it, only to think about it for several months and then proclaim that “it was one of the best books of the year.”  We can all check back here in the fall, but I doubt I’ll change my opinion.Interesting (fascinating, even) world, wonderful writing, no plot.  At least no plot that we care about, and it certainly isn’t resolved in any way.  Maybe this novel is designed to be a cautionary tale, but even then it seems to be nothing more than a rehash of a whole host of dire predictions, movies, and warnings from radical environmental groups.  All in all, the book was extremely hard to get through despite it’s beautifully designed cover illustration and I’d recommend staying away.

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