The Windup Girl: hell in a GM handbasket

Book cover: The Windup Girl - Paolo BacigalupiAnderson Lake is a Calorie Man, hunting Bangkok’s markets for foodstuffs long thought to be extinct. There he meets the windup girl Emiko – one of the New People, engineered to satisfy a rich man’s whims, then abandoned to the slums. Welcome to a near-future where oil has run out, seas are rising, and food safety is in the hands of a ruthless few.

I really enjoyed most of this, but read the very end with a burgeoning cold, which has left me rather meh – I’m fairly sure this is my head rather than the novel (although I understand some other reviewers have shared my problem, so perhaps not).

The book has received criticism for its handling of race and gender, which it largely deserves. I’m not going to defend the author or novel – I picked it up knowing it was problematic, and it is.

Putting these two issues aside, the novel has a rich dystopian setting in which carbon-fuel deficits, climate change and genetic engineering have cancelled the global economy and left low-lying SE Asia fighting the rising tides and the aggressive seed and bio warfare waged by the Midwestern US food companies. Power is now kinetic – treadle computers, bicycles and elephant-wound kink-springs that store energy to be released on demand later – supplemented with heavily rationed methane for cooking, lighting etc.

I enjoyed the inventiveness of the setting, and it was my fascination with how the politics and economics of this developed that kept me going for much of the novel. I wanted to see SpringLife’s idealistic technology play succeed so that I could understand it.

The many-layered politics of royal court, feuding government departments, foreign capitalists, Chinese immigrants, and venal underworld were equally absorbing and ultimately the true thrust of the narrative (in spite of various red herring plots along the way). It’s dystopia, so everyone is out for themselves and there’s little redemption on offer.

Oddly, I think it was the inevitable cynicism that was ultimately the novel’s undoing for me  – when I’m not feeling very well I need a dose of joy and hope at the end. I think I’d have found the rather colder, harder conclusion much more satisfying on another day.