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The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Cover art by Raphael Lacoste

Published by Night Shade Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This is a novel about which I feel intensely ambivalent. The setting is simultaneously fascinating yet almost unbearably grim, a testimony in reverse to Eric Flint's point in the 1632-verse that technology, and particularly mechanical sources of power, are essential to universal freedom and dignity. For the world of The Windup Girl is a future in which petroleum has run out and runaway global warming has resulted in strict caps on the amount of carbon dioxide nations may produce in their efforts to maintain some modicum of technological society. A world in which human life is cheap to the point of being effectively disposable unless one is of a thin skin of elite, in which unrestrained corporate interests deliberately introduce genetically engineered diseases to which they alone hold the cures in a vicious biological protection racket.

On one hand, the ingenuity of the kink-springs, treadle-powered computers and other technological devices has to be admired. It gives this world an almost clockpunk feel, and could easily have been a pean to the resiliency of the human spirit in the face of dwindling resources. However, the continual focus upon every form of human cruelty to fellow human beings gives it a shuddersome quality that is only reinforced by the inability of any of the major characters to overcome obstacles through their efforts. No matter how hard they try, no matter how nobly they strive, all their work inevitably comes to naught in the end, leaving them -- and by extension the reader -- in a state of despair.

Emiko, the windup girl of the book's title, makes me think of the eponymous hero of Robert A. Heinlein's Friday. The windups or New People of this novel, like the Artificial Persons of Heinlein's novel, are artificially created and are the subject of intense prejudice and even legal disabilities as unnatural, even subhuman. However, Emiko's situation is far more grim than that of Friday -- not only is she legally an object rather than a person, even an enslaved person, she has been genetically engineered for submissiveness and obedience, such that when she is given a direct order she literally cannot help herself but obey. In fact, she almost makes me think of the servus, the genetically engineered subject race in S. M. Stirling's Drakon.

However, her creators have not been able to completely eradicate her free will or her sense of self, so when she is discarded by her Japanese owner as too expensive to repatrate when his time in Thailand is over, the abuse to which she is subjected by the people to whom she falls creates an ever-growing well of bitterness and anger in her soul. So long as enduring abuse is her only way of keeping breathing, it remains invisible and to all appearances she is a good little frightened, submissive sextoy, an available hole for men to abuse with contempt.

But then the well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual protagonist, Anderson Lake, slips her a hint of hope in the process of pumping her for information on a man he is seeking. Although in his future America the vicious agricultural megacorporations known as the calorie companies have become the effective government, along the lines of so many grim cyberpunk futures before them, he seems to still have some fragment of feeling for the ideals of freedom and human dignity upon which the country was originally founded, for which it fought a brutal Civil War. At some level her servitude and degradation disturbs him enough that he tells her of the colonies of runaway windups who live somewhere in the jungles of northern Thailand, Burma and Laos, forming their own communities without masters or servants.

Once the flame of hope is lit within her heart, it will not go out, no matter how hard her venal and vile pimp tries to put her off with false promises and debt peonage tricks. As she sees through his attempts to string her along, she takes an incredibly dangerous chance to wander through the streets of Bangkok in hopes of catching a ride out of the city to a point at which she can make contact with her own kind, to get to a place where she won't be an illegal invasive species surviving only because her pimp bribes the powerful Environmental Ministry to look the other way.

However, she instead attracts the attention of an embittered, drug-addicted veteran of the Coal Wars, the desperate battles for the dwindling stores of coal by which the City of Divine Beings keeps running the powerful pumps that hold back the rising seas. In her seemingly hopeless flight from him she once again encounters Anderson Lake, who rescues her and takes her to his apartment to recuperate. However, it is only a temporary respite, since he does not dare go so far as actually help her escape. Thus she must return to the vile sexclub where she serves, less than a slave.

And thus her storyline intersects with that of Jaidee, the fierce Tiger of the Environmental Ministry's white shirt enforcers. A former athlete full of idealistic zeal, he believes in actually enforcing the law rather than looking the other way in exchange for handsome bribes. Until the day his strike against the anchor pads at which kink-spring-powered dirigibles bring valuable imports into the country brings him into conflict with the equally powerful Trade Ministry, to the point his protectors within the Environmental Ministry can no longer cover for him. When his wife is kidnapped, he is told that if he formally apologizes and accepts discipline, he may be able to save her.

The scene in which he is formally criticized and he apologizes is creepily reminiscent of the criticism and resignation of Nikolai Yezhov as head of the Soviet NKVD as the Great Terror was being wound down. However, unlike Yezhov, Jaidee is not executed, merely demoted and forced to spend time as a monk atoning for his sins, and while his beloved sons will be stripped of their name, they are taken under the Environmental Ministry's protection, not flung into an abusive orphanage to be told they are polluted by their father's crimes and left to lead miserable lives of poverty as outcasts on the margins of society.

But Jaidee cannot abide the life of a monk, and soon slips out to see about avenging himself more directly. In doing so and getting killed, he sparks a violent uprising in which the white shirts of the Environmental Ministry take to the streets, destroying factories and other things they regard as intrusions of the corrupt Trade Ministry that have stymied the Environmental Ministry's efforts to protect Thailand and keep it pure of the various diseases genetically engineered by the calorie companies to destroy all foodstocks save those they control. An uprising which is only exacerbated when Emiko is finally pushed too far and unlocks her hidden abilities, lashing out at her abusers -- who just happen to be a vilely corrupt high government official and his entourage.

And thus all the efforts of all the characters are in the end brought to naught, and the final scenes are at best a mockery of hope. Maybe genetic engineering can create a new humanity who will be immune from the various plagues the calorie companies have created -- but will they still be truly human.

Generally I don't like to read distopian stories -- I get enough of unrelentingly grim and hopeless just by reading history, particularly the history of the tyrannies of the twentieth century and the utopian visions that spiraled into nightmares of mad slaughter. But at the same time, I recognize that distopian literature can have an important social role, warning us of the dangers that await us if certain social trends continue unabated and bolstering the political and social will to fight them. For instance, George Orwell's 1984 was no doubt critical in stiffening the will of the West to fight Soviet expansionism, simply because the visceral horror of the fate of its protagonist had an emotional impact far more powerful than any number of speeches and opinion pieces.

However, while this novel clearly portrays a world in which something has gone terribly wrong, there is no clear indication of what exactly has gone wrong, what evil must be loathed and fought, to compare with the ending of 1984 and its gloating image of the future as "a boot stamping on a human face, forever" which galvanized its readers to determine that tyranny must not prevail over democracy. Is it lawless megacorps who become so powerful that they are effectively above the law and even become the government? Is it the rejection of nuclear power or is it the stifling effects of cap-and-trade legislation? Is it the danger of genetic engineering creating rightless subhumans, effectively undoing the struggles of several generations against slavery, such that the dead of the Civil War shall indeed have died in vain? We have at the end no clear picture of what is wrong, what must be fought if we are to avoid such a future.

Review posted March 30, 2010.

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