Book Review: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Alright, so I was torn about reviewing The Windup Girl because I’m really not sure it’s fair to do so. I tried. I really did. But no matter what I did, I just couldn’t get into this book. For the first time in years, I couldn’t finish a book once I started it. I only got about a third of the way through it before I put it back on the shelf.

I want to say up front that this was not because Paolo Bacigalupi is a bad writer. He’s pretty good, and even though I didn’t like the book, I would go so far as to say there’s a good chance you would. It’s also not because I disagree with Mr. Bacigalupi’s (for lack of a better word) politics, even the more extreme parts like his portrayal of big businesses as bioterrorists. My disagreement was real, but that wouldn’t stop me from reading it. It wasn’t even because I found the premise to be patently unrealistic. I love a good fantasy or soft sci-fi novel.

The reason I couldn’t get into this book was because I found it to be patently unrealistic while trying to set itself up as realistic (granted, this was more marketing than Mr. Bacigalupi’s intent), and it just destroyed my suspension of disbelief. You may think that’s unfair, and you would have a point, so I’m going to try to make this review as balanced as possible, respecting the fact that I only have firsthand knowledge of the first third of the story.

The Windup Girl is set in Thailand, 200 years into a future of environmental devastation. Most of the world’s coastal cities have been flooded by global warming, but that’s just the start of it. The depletion of oil reserves made international travel nearly impossible and electricity hard to come by. Most trade is now conducted by clipper ships and dirigibles, and home appliances are largely crank-powered.

Genetic engineering has devastated this future world. Birds have been nearly wiped out by genetically modified color-changing Cheshire cats. Calorie Companies, the wicked descendants of the worst stereotypes of today’s Monsanto, have become bioterrorists, deliberately releasing genetically-modified blights and pests that destroy the world’s crops, forcing everyone to buy their own genetically-modified, disease-resistant seeds. And worst of all, these plagues have jumped from plants to the human population, killing millions more on top of the millions who starved to death.

Mr. Bacigalupi weaves a compelling, immersive tale of the struggle to survive in this hostile future. The title character is Emiko, a windup girl–a genetically-modified human made in Japan as a “companion” for a wealthy executive–who is now struggling to survive in an environment she wasn’t designed for. One day, she is thrust into the battle between Anderson, a Calorie Company man trying to beat back the out-of-control plagues a little longer, and the fiercely isolationist Thai government, and everything changes.

Unfortunately, though, I just couldn’t get into the story. And it was even harder for me because I loved Mr. Bacigalupi’s writing style. He has that way of throwing the reader into the deep end of a strange world that, when done well, carries you away and makes you feel like you’re really there. David Brin did this brilliantly in one of my all-time favorites, Existence, and The Windup Girl did it nearly as well.

But I couldn’t get into it because from the very first chapter, I couldn’t stop thinking to myself, Why isn’t anything solar powered? The only sources of electricity in The Windup Girl are coal, which is subject to strict emissions limits, biofuel methane, and crank power. There is no solar, no nuclear, no hydroelectric, no wind. Personally, I think the future will be mostly solar-powered, but it’s entirely absent here, with no explanation.

I looked into why this was, and I found an interview that Mr. Bacigalupi gave to io9, in which he said, “Basically, I took all the different alternative energy sources that got in my way, marched them out back, and shot them through the eye with a spring gun (not much gunpowder in TWG, either).” In other words, The Windup Girl was wrongly marketed as hard sci-fi, or else it’s set in a parallel universe where alternative energy doesn’t exist. I just couldn’t do it. That was a bridge too far for me.

(And worse, that crank power I mentioned? Well, that’s fine for small home appliances, but on an industrial scale, it’s done by having genetically-modified elephants turn giant spindles. This is pretty much the worst possible way to do it. It would literally be ten times more efficient to convert the food they’re feeding the elephants into biofuel directly.)

Ultimately, The Windup Girl is a well-written story with the fatal flaw that I just couldn’t believe the world it was set in. Out of fairness, I’m not going to give it an official rating, but I’ve told you the problems I have with it, and if you don’t think they will pose a problem for you, I think it would be worth picking up. Otherwise, you might want to pass it by.

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About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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