7 Rated Books Book Reviews Steampunk Week

Steampunk Week – Book Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Title: The Windup Girl

Author: Paolo Bacigalupi

Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopia

Publisher: Night Shade Books
Publication Date: September 2009
Hardcover: 300 pages

What Happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits? And what happens when said bio-terrorism forces humanity to the cusp of post-human evolution? In The Windup Girl, award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi returns to the world of “The Calorie Man”( Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award-winner, Hugo Award nominee, 2006) and “Yellow Card Man” (Hugo Award nominee, 2007) in order to address these questions.

Stand alone or series: Can be read as a stand alone novel, although it is set in the world of two of Bacigalupi’s short stories – “The Calorie Man” (Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award-winner, Hugo Award nominee, 2006) and “Yellow Card Man” (Hugo Award nominee, 2007).

How did I get this book: Bought

Why did I read this book: Ever since I heard of The Windup Girl and saw it on numerous Best of 2009 lists, I have been dying to read this book.


First things first – I had seen this book praised to the high heavens after its late 2009 release, and have been looking forward to reading it ever since. Then, when I started to see it pop up on “Steampunk Essential Reading” lists, I was even more excited, and I set a firm date to read and review this highly anticipated release for Steampunk Week.

Well folks, I’m a little chagrined to report: The Windup Girl really is not Steampunk.

At least, it doesn’t fit in with my conceptualization of steampunk. That’s not to say that it isn’t a good book – because it is. But as a feature for this week, it falls a little short. But more on that later.

The Windup Girl is a futuristic dystopia, set in a shocking incarnation of Thailand. The world as we know it has changed drastically – genetically engineered crops have fallen to strengthened, bio-engineered pests; food is controlled by corporations; fossil fuels are all but exhausted; sea levels have risen and reclaimed incredible surface areas…Bacigalupi’s is a dying world. In this version of Thailand, tensions tear the nation from without and within – the government corrupt, the locals resentful of “yellow card” refugees and the encroaching farang (or foreigners), their factories, and their attempts to steal . And, embroiled in this volatile world are four important characters: Anderson Lake – a “Calorie Man” farang intent on discovering gene-ripping secrets for The Company. Hock Seng – a “Yellow Card” Chinese-Malay refugee, foreman of Anderson’s factory, and with a business agenda of his own. Jaidee – a vigilante-type local “hero,” set on sticking it to those in command and fighting corruption with his own glory-seeking style of mayhem. And finally, there’s Emiko – a “New Person,” a “herky-jerky” Japanese genetically engineered woman made to be a sexual companion and personal secretary, left behind by her keeper, left to a world of degradation and abuse each night at a Thai flophouse.

Nuanced and darkly grim, The Windup Girl is an original, memorable debut novel from the undeniably talented Paolo Bacigalupi. In many ways, this novel is an environmentally-conscious, precautionary tale and all the more terrifying because of its plausibility; we very well could engineer our own food and environmental demise intentionally (i.e. biological terrorism) or unintentionally (resistant, super strains of pests and diseases). The Windup Girl‘s worldbuilding as well is solid. As a Southeast Asian from the Philippines and Indonesia, I can definitely see that Mr. Bacigalupi has done his homework, down to the fruit of the region (for example, rambutan, which translates from Indonesian as “hair fruit”) and the tensions between natives and their hatred for Chinese immigrants.

But it is thematically that The Windup Girl is at its finest. The overwhelming, unifying theme of the book is that of greed: corporate greed that caused the world’s death, human greed that dominates the Thai government, personal greed that motivates any number of characters in the book. The ugliness of humanity is prevalent throughout, painting a grimy, unflinching picture of the world.

So far as characters go, however, Mr. Bacigalupi left me feeling a little cold. While an equal amount of time is spent on each main character, they all felt a little bare-boned. Interestingly, the only character I felt any sort of connection with was the NON-“human” character Emiko, the titled Windup Girl. Her struggles, her alienation and sustained abuse is horrifying stuff, and her determination to live despite it all is a bright spot in a a decidedly grim novel. The reaction of humans towards “New People” is discrimination on an epic scale, and the kicker is, with the world so disintegrated, only the New People may survive as the next step in human evolution.

While I enjoyed The Windup Girl, I did find that it faltered in a few vital categories. As a novel of science fiction, the actual science element of The Windup Girl isn’t very strong – the concept of biologically engineered New People, made so that their motions are “herky-jerky” but also simultaneously lightning quick, and the genetic breeding of character traits like “obedience” rings as a little bit silly. Furthermore, the idea of using springs to store and generate energy is also not very believable – surely there were other power options available to this world (wind, solar, hydro, biodiesel, nuclear, etc)? Also, I found myself asking, is this story actually effective? The answer is both yes and no. There was a LOT of repetition in this book where there needn’t have been – there’s little advancement of any truly engaging plot. The actual point of the story, its atmospheric strengths and green-conscious warning for the future are made easily within the first 50 pages or so. Ultimately, I found it abundantly clear that Mr. Bacigalupi is a short fiction writer, as The Windup Girl felt like an unnecessarily protracted novella.

These failings in mind, however, I still ended up enjoying The Windup Girl, and look forward to seeing what else Paolo Bacigalupi has up his sleeve in the future.

BUT IS IT STEAMPUNK? Nope. The Windup Girl is not by any stretch of the imagination Steampunk. Using my own bizarre criteria of what constitutes Steampunk, The Windup Girl just doesn’t quite cut it. Other than a single scene involving dirigibles, there is absolutely no steam-technology in this book. None. Zilch. Nada. Though there is a significant amount of radical social and political critique in this book, there is basically nothing on the steam-technological or aesthetic end of the spectrum – and a couple of dirigibles does not a steampunk make. Sorry folks that have this on their Steampunk Essentials list – The WIndup GIrl doesn’t make it on mine. (Though it is a good example of a green-conscious dystopian novel!)

Notable Quotes/Parts: From the first chapter:

“No! I don’t want the mangosteen.” Anderson Lake leans forward, pointing. “I want that one, there. Kaw pollamai nee khap. The one with the red skin and the green hairs.”

The peasant woman smiles, showing teeth blackened from chewing betel nut, and points to a pyramid of fruits stacked beside her. “Un nee chai mai kha?

“Right. Those. Khap.” Anderson nods and makes himself smile. “What are they called?”

Ngaw.” She pronounces the word carefully for his foreign ear, and hands across a sample.

Anderson takes the fruit, frowning. “It’s new?”

Kha.” She nods an affirmative.

Anderson turns the fruit in his hand, studying it. It’s more like a gaudy sea anemone or a furry puffer fish than a fruit. Coarse green tendrils protrude from all sides, tickling his palm. The skin has the rust-red tinge of blister rust, but when he sniffs he doesn’t get any stink of decay. It seems perfectly healthy, despite its appearance.

Ngaw,” the peasant woman says again, and then, as if reading his mind. “New. No blister rust.”

Anderson nods absently. Around him, the market soi bustles with Bangkok’s morning shoppers. Mounds of durians fill the alley in reeking piles and water tubs splash with snakehead fish and red-fin plaa. Overhead, palm-oil polymer tarps sag under the blast furnace heat of the tropic sun, shading the market with hand-painted images of clipper ship trading companies and the face of the revered Child Queen. A man jostles past, holding vermilion-combed chickens high as they flap and squawk outrage on their way to slaughter, and women in brightly colored pha sin bargain and smile with the vendors, driving down the price of pirated U-Tex rice and new-variant tomatoes.

None of it touches Anderson.

Ngaw,” the woman says again, seeking connection.

The fruit’s long hairs tickle his palm, challenging him to recognize its origin. Another Thai genehacking success, just like the tomatoes and eggplants and chiles that abound in the neighboring stalls. It’s as if the Grahamite Bible’s prophecies are coming to pass. As if Saint Francis himself stirs in his grave, restless, preparing to stride forth onto the land, bearing with him the bounty of history’s lost calories.

“And he shall come with trumpets, and Eden shall return. . .”

Anderson turns the strange hairy fruit in his hand. It carries no stink of cibiscosis. No scab of blister rust. No graffiti of genehack weevil engraves its skin. The world’s flowers and vegetables and trees and fruits make up the geography of Anderson Lake’s mind, and yet nowhere does he find a helpful signpost that leads him to identification.

Ngaw. A mystery.

You can read the full chapter, along with other sample chapters, online HERE.

Additional Thoughts: As I mentioned above, The Windup Girl is a full length novel set in the world of two of Paolo Bacigalupi’s prior, award winning short stories (the “Windup Stories”). Even cooler is, these stories are available for free download via the book’s page on Night Shade Books. You can check out the PDF version HERE.

Also, you may or may not have heard that Paolo Bacigalupi is making his first foray into the world of Young Adult novels this year! Check out his forthcoming title, Ship Breaker.

Set initially in a future shanty town in America’s Gulf Coast region, where grounded oil tankers are being dissembled for parts by a rag tag group of workers, we meet Nailer, a teenage boy working the light crew, searching for copper wiring to make quota and live another day. The harsh realities of this life, from his abusive father, to his hand to mouth existence, echo the worst poverty in the present day third world. When an accident leads Nailer to discover an exquisite clipper ship beached during a recent hurricane, and the lone survivor, a beautiful and wealthy girl, Nailer finds himself at a crossroads. Should he strip the ship and live a life of relative wealth, or rescue the girl, Nita, at great risk to himself and hope she’ll lead him to a better life. This is a novel that illuminates a world where oil has been replaced by necessity, and where the gap between the haves and have-nots is now an abyss. Yet amidst the shadows of degradation, hope lies ahead.

Verdict: A thoughtful, well-written and provocative examination of a dystopian future – the world run aground thanks to collective greed. Though it feels somewhat like a protracted short story and it certainly isn’t Steampunk, it’s an unquestionably strong debut, and I look forward to more from Mr. Bacigalupi in the near future.

Rating: 7 – Very Good

Reading Next: Airborn by Kenneth Oppel

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  • Darren @ Bart's Bookshelf
    March 9, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    I first came across this one a few months ago, when someone submitted a review to a carnival I was hosting, and it almost went on the wishlist there and then! (I’d like to say it wasn’t just because of the cover, but, well as good as the review was then, I’d still be lying!)

    Now a few reviews later, and with this one, despite it’s lack of steampunk qualifications I think it’s definitely nailed a place on the must read wishlist!

    Can’t wait to see what you think of Airborn. I love that series, Kate and Matt are fantastic characters! πŸ˜€

  • Danielle
    March 9, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    I just got Ship Breaker for review. I’ve been, like, DYING to read the Wind-up Girl for the longest time, but now I’m not so sure…

    Great review. Can we file this one under “false advertisment”?

  • Erika (Jawas Read, Too)
    March 9, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    Great review!

    I agree–the only character I found a connection with was the non-human one. It’s ironic, but also intentional, I think. The non-human wants to be human when the picture of humanity we get from the other character is one of greed and ultimate self-destruction. Amid all of that, she struggles just to be. Her involvement, and the commentary on the New People, what that metaphor stands for, really was, for me, the best part of the book. πŸ™‚

    I never even thought of it as Steampunk, so I’m with you on this definitely not fitting the subgenere.

    I’m also quite excited about Ship Breaker. I have an ARC from the publisher and now am torn: do I read it early, months before the release, or wait until closer to June? It takes a lot of willpower to not pick it up right now and just start reading!

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  • KMont
    March 9, 2010 at 6:33 pm

    Hmmm, well, it did sound more dystopian than steampunk from the blurb I saw a while back. Good to have that affirmation tho. Still, I like the sound of it otherwise. πŸ˜‰

  • Rhiannon Hart
    April 9, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    Lordy, I forgot this one was tipped as steampunk. The most steampunkish thing about it is the zeppelin on the cover, which seems to have become the universal symbol for “herein lies steampunk”. My review will be up shortly, but it mostly turns into a gush about how I can’t wait for Ship Breaker.

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