The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl is unlike anything I've read - in a good way.

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I had never read any of Paolo Bacigalupi’s short stories before I delved into The Windup Girl.

I want to now.

I’d seen The Windup Girl on all kinds of lists last fall, but never really looked at the cover. The title didn’t appeal to me overly much. This spring, my brother hooked me up with a copy of Bacigalupi’s latest and suddenly I was compelled to finish up Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun in order to get into The Windup Girl.

I think the cover had a lot to do with it: blimps hovering above a Bangkok in the near future in the background juxtaposed with robed figures leading a huge tusked elephant down a street filled with bazaar tents and colored flags, a scene from 50 or 100 years ago. There are other touches, too, many of which hide in the haze and shadows. They give the book a dystopian kind of vibe, a sense that the world has regressed or in a state of entropy.

The cover was not a pretty wrapper hiding something less-than inside. If anything, the cover was merely a harbinger the tale within.

On the back are the customary blurbs from other authors, which I usually take with a grain of salt. But there was one blurb that caught my eye:

“I hate this guy. All of a sudden he comes out of nowher, writing liek a weird angel, and winning awarrds, and knocking us old pros out of the box with stories about stuff we hadn’t gotten around to thinking up yet. (Like that stupid bio dog!) Plus he’s young and good looking. Luckily, he has an unpronounceable name.”

Terry Bisson, author of Numbers Don’t Lie and Greetings

Mr. Bisson’s words intrigued me.

I usually begin books with trepidation, fearing that I’ll become too conscious of the author’s writing or not engage with the story. Or worse yet, become engaged and find out that the rest of the story doesn’t live up to the beginning  (I’m currently 100 pages into The Name of the Wind and I’m still not sure). I should mention that I didn’t read the jacket flap either. I like to let books surprise me.

I became too engrossed in the story to notice anything else. Bacigalupi’s writing slides along, leaving only the story at the surface. As a writer, I’m intrigued by the way Bacigalupi didn’t let me slip out of the story. There were times when I’d pick up the book and begin looking for writerly things and then I’d find myself ten pages deeper into the story.

There are concepts that Bacigalupi includes in this story that may give you pause, but  Bacigalupi uses them to explore themes regarding human nature, personal psychology, politics and so on.

I won’t do a plot synopsis, but I will tell you that the cast of characters are all people who make you root for them while they do things that make you cringe. It reminds me a little of George RR Martin’s ability to draw gray characters, reminding us that we have a bit of the hero in us, but also the hideous monster as well. The stories of these characters intertwine and twist in ways you don’t expect at times (in a good way).

I think the thing I enjoyed the most was Bacigalupi’s Bangkok. I’ve never been to Thailand so I have no frame of reference, but even if he had set his story on another planet, the setting would have enveloped me.  Bangkok is a city holding back the ocean long after New York, Rangoon, Mumbai and New Orleans have all succumbed to rising ocean waters (presumably to the melting of the polar ice caps).

The country is run on brute force of engineered elephants (megadonts) and people, composted methane, limited coal and ‘kink-springs’, springs that are designed to store energy and to be use as engines (think watch springs but bigger and more powerful). It’s hot as hell and there’s no AC.

Government agencies do their best to regulate the influence of foreign business interests in their city for it is their isolation that has kept the Thai Kingdom from succumbing to the pressures of global trade. In this world, it is the global nature of the economy, genetic modifications/engineering and the distribution of those “advances” that has put the world in a bad way. Thailand’s seedbank is coveted by the agribusiness giants as a way to capitalize on the havoc they have already wreaked.

Throw on top of these things some good old fashioned internal politics and you’ve got tension in buckets with plenty to spare.

The titular character, Emiko, becomes the central figure in the story if only because she is the thread that binds the other stories. One review has a problem with Emiko’s character, but I don’t feel like it detracted from the story at all. Another review complains that Emiko is primarily acted upon, but she is, after all, created to serve and be obedient. Besides, when she does act – look out.

Like any book, The Windup Girl cannot be all things to all people. If you like a compelling story with unobtrusive prose, you should check this out.

Comments ( 12 )

  1. ReplyPeter Cooper
    Even before I read your review, that cover drew me in. I've sometimes wondered whether steampunk as a genre might be too restrictive. I've only read two books but they were eerily similar, even down to both of them beginning with a boy being woken by servants in the dead of night. But this looks totally different to what I've read. I guess I'll have to add it to my (burgeoning) wish-list. Thanks for the helpful review!
    • ReplyJonathan Danz
      I agree. I think steampunk is more an aesthetic than a genre. Once you remove it from alternate history type stuff, it becomes less definable. The sensibilities of Mieville's Bas-Lag books and The Windup Girl are a far cry from all that 19th century, corset and top hat stuff -- and each other for that matter. The possibilities are intriguing. Thanks for stopping by!
  2. ReplySara McClung
    This book sounds way intriguing! I haven't read much steampunk, but I'm totally passing this on to my CP who writes/reads/loves it!
    • ReplyJonathan Danz
      Bacigalupi explores some stuff that is topical right now. Let's just hope his vision doesn't shake out. Let me know if your CP enjoys it. For other steampunk type stuff, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest is a nice standard example of the genre that I think would appeal to a wide audience. From what I've read, Gail Carriger is often considered adept at the 19th century, alternate history thang.
  3. ReplyTeresa
    This has been sitting on my to read list for several months. The first five pages drew me into the story, but I had some books I'd promised to read for other people. Your review has made me bump it up in the pile! Right now, I'm into Sarah Waters' latest, The Little Stranger. As soon as I get off my Waters' kick, I'm heading for The Wind-up Girl. Thanks for the review, Jonathan!
    • ReplyJonathan Danz
      Hope you enjoy it. I'd love to know what you think when you're done.
  4. ReplyRebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist
    Thanks for the rec. I agree. That cover does not do it for me at all. In fact, I almost decided to skip over your post today because of it! That's so terrible I know. But yet another lesson in: You can't judge a book (or a blog!) by it's cover (or graphic!).
    • ReplyJonathan Danz
      That's awesome. One man's art is another woman's scrap paper ;-). I hope you check it out. It's a mighty fine read.
  5. Replysarahwedgbrow
    I'm very intrigued...I haven't read anything in the Steampunk genre (only still waking up to the fact that it is a genre). Thanks very much for the recommendation...I'm sold!
    • ReplyJonathan Danz
      I've been exploring the many flavors of steampunk over the last several months. I would put Mieville and Bacigalupi on the top the list. When you read it, let us know what you think.
  6. Tying It All Together « Words and Coffee
    [...] read books that came to satisfying conclusions (for me) include The Windup Girl, The Anubis Gates, Finch and Anathem. Two novels that left me flat are The Difference Engine [...]
  7. Words and Coffee » Blog Archive » Favorite Reads of 2010
    [...] I wrote a post on this not long after I finished it. If nothing else, Bacigalupi’s conception of our world in a post-oil era is stunning. But The Windup Girl is so much more than that. I look forward to reading it again. [...]

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