Monday, April 12, 2010

Paolo Bacigalupi's WINDUP GIRL reviewed by Cara Powers

Cover of The Windup GirlI've been hearing (reading) all sorts of buzz about Paolo Bacigalupi's debut novel The Windup Girl. When I discovered that it made the short list for the 2009 Nebula Awards and remembered that I'd obtained a free copy for my nook, it went to the top of my must read list.

I had no idea what it was about. I thought maybe it involved an AI that looks like a little girl? When I saw the cover, I was like "Mammoths and skyscrapers?!" and was as clueless as I was before.

Bacigalupi takes ideas similar to the ones in Margaret Atwood's Oryx & Crake—biological warfare, new plagues in humans and crops, genetic engineering, and an eccentric genetic engineer—and adds in political intrigue, corporate espionage, and the end of fossil fuels to make a dystopia that is both more believable and thus scarier than Atwood's dystopia.

The Windup Girl is set in the kingdom of Thailand umpteen whatever years in the future. So many plant and animal species have been wiped out by plagues or genetically engineered organisms that replaced them in their environmental niche. Corporations like PurCal and AgriGen, the calorie companies, sell seeds all over the world, but to maintain their hold on governments, they only sell seeds that won't grow plants that will reproduce.

Those mammoths on the cover? They're the replacement for oil-powered generators, at least in Thailand. (I guess that's a more interesting way to go than nuclear power.) The mechanical energy the mammoths produce is stored in "kink-springs" which power everything electric.

The story is told in present tense by three narrators. Writing in present tense is supposed to be terribly difficult and is used to add immediacy and suspense to the narrative. After all, if the narrator is telling a story in the past tense, that narrator must have lived to the end. Right? Personally, I wasn't particularly impressed by the effect of the present tense except where I was jarred out of the narrative.

The motivations of the three narrators are clearly drawn, but only Emiko, the windup girl, undergoes any personal growth. This fact makes her character the appropriate title character, despite her narrative taking up less than one third of the narrative space. The scenes of her sexual abuse, illustrating man's fear of the other, are disturbing but well-written.

Both Oryx & Crake and The Windup Girl contain gang rape scenes. The scene in Atwood's book seems to be more purely for shock value. The Crakers in Oryx & Crake seem more like intelligent humanoid animal's than true humans while the windups in The Windup Girl seem more like humans engineered and trained to be slaves to their bodies.

All in all, the world building in The Windup Girl is better than the world building in Oryx & Crake. The character motivations are more understandable in The Windup Girl than those in Oryx & Crake. Most importantly, the social commentary in The Windup Girl is more profound than that in Oryx & Crake, making The Windup Girl the superior novel in my opinion. Feel free to disagree.

Was reading this book worth my time?
Of course. In the three weeks it's taken me to write this review, The Windup Girl has also made the shortlist for the Hugo Awards. I've now read two of the books on this year's Nebula and Hugo Award shortlists. I'm rooting for Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, but that's a discussion for another time. Perhaps I'll change my mind once I read the rest of the books shortlisted (if I can get to it).