The Windup Girl by Paolo Bagicalupi

Orbit, 2010. 507p.

I tend to mistrust hype. This novel comes garlanded with adulatory quotes so it was going to have an uphill struggle to convince me. But it won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards; which ought to be some indicator of quality.

The book is set almost entirely in the City of Divine Beings in Thailand, sometimes rendered as Bangkok, or Klong Thep, its harbour area. After an environmental fall where sea levels have risen – the city is surrounded by levees – the proudly independent Thais feel under siege from the technology of a resurgent West. Gengineered diseases, deliberately created or not, abound, people live in fear of their (re-)occurence. Among other animals and plants, cats have been swept away, their niche overtaken by almost invisible gengineered creations known as Cheshires. In this Thailand anything technological is frowned upon and subject to bribery for acceptance. Machines – even down to hand guns – are powered by mechanisms known as kink-springs or, for heavy work, (this being Thailand) megodont, genetically modified elephants. It is a reasonably convincing vision of a future rendered difficult and more threatening than even our troubled present.

The windup girl of the title is one of the less-than-human clones engineered by the Japanese to deal with a worker shortage and known as heechy keechy by the Thais. She has tell-tale jerky movements, an inbuilt inability to sweat except through her hands and is conditioned to please and obey (spot the fantasy here.) On his leaving Thailand her original owner sold her into a kind of slavery where she is subjected to regular sexual degradation in the floor show of an exceedingly seedy night club. (This aspect reminded me a little of one of the narrative strands in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.)

The novel is by no means flawless. We have four viewpoint characters – not all entirely convincing – one of whom is killed halfway through and whose narrative is taken over by a fifth who is ultimately the agent of change. Perhaps she should always have been the focus of the relevant strand.

While Bacigalupi may have intended our windup girl to feature more prominently, and she does kick off the dénouement, she is more or less a side line character and not involved in the resolution which, rather than being about something more interesting, degenerates into a shoot-em-up civil war. In the early chapters characters spend a lot of time talking to each other. Later chapters do however become shorter and snappier as the action takes over. Despite its setting and several Thai or Chinese main characters it feels a touch Western triumphalist in overall tone.

Hyped? Certainly.

Worth it? Perhaps not. I suppose Bacigalupi has been getting brownie points for his unusual (for a USian) adoption of exotic settings. His Thailand did appear well researched.

It’s up for the BSFA Award, but probably won’t get my vote, though I’ll read his next with interest.

Aside:- The edition I read sadly seemed to have been printed on poor quality paper with many blemishes and at least one outright hole obliterating several letters on both sides of the sheet – at least in the early pages. Another niggle was that the copy seemed to be reproduced directly from a US edition. Cheaper no doubt, but annoying since it was printed in St Ives. Bacigalupi adopts the spelling chile throughout for what is evidently the capsicum normally spelled chilli. Wikipedia states this is actually the modern Mexican usage. He also had a Thai saying “I’ll take that on advisement.” This is a phrase I’ve only ever heard on US TV programmes.

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