Probably not too many people think what the world might be like in about 100 years, and if they do, their vision may be similar to what they’re familiar with today. Paolo Bacigalupi ‘s The Windup Girl depicts a future most of us hope can be avoided, a world in which nature has transformed beyond recognition, and the global population decimated. Diseases and pests mutate as fast as genes are engineered.
In this world, calories, not energy are the global currency. Global seed/food companies manipulate markets and overthrow governments prowling the globe for new or saved genetic material. How this all happened is not explained, but it looks like peak oil, climate change and genetic engineering run amok.
The main characters are an interesting mix: Anderson, is a calorie man for AgriGen (Big Pharma and Big Ag all wrapped into one). He runs a quasi-biofuel company as a front, all the while searching for caloric opportunities and new genetic material. His employee Hock Seng, is a refugee from Malaya, who is trying to survive in a country hostile to immigrants. Jaidee and Kanya are Environmental Ministry officers. The Environmental Ministry has many responsibilities; one of which is protecting the Kingdom from invasive genetic species including windups. Windups is the informal term given to the genetically engineered New People developed in Japan to aid an aging population. Emiko, the title character, is in Bangkok left behind like discarded furniture from her previous owner.
There are a lot of ideas being explored in this book: the consequences of genetic engineering, the nature of humanity, the effects of the breakdown of the global economy, resilience and survival in the face of environmental disasters. Bacigalupi explores these ideas without ever becoming preachy. The narrative is well paced and the characters are engaging. The book’s setting in Bangkok is a risk. The view of Bangkok falls within western stereotypes. Much of what’s happening in Bangkok in the 22nd century feels a lot like the same city in the Bangkok 8 series: the despised farang, a focus on the sex trade, and a peculiar synergy between corruption and Buddhism. Bacigalupi may have recognized this, in the acknowledgements he disclaims the book is a representation of present day Thailand and recommends several Thai authors for a better understanding of the country and the culture.
Overall, this was a good read.