The Windup Girl

READERS OF NATURE WRITING may not be aware of the deep green streak that runs through much science fiction, so Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl might be missed. It shouldn’t be. Bacigalupi has plenty of street cred in the science-fiction world, but those coming to his work for the first time (myself included) may be more impressed with his literary chops, which are considerable.

The Windup Girl is set in the not-too-distant future of Bangkok, following the Contraction, when globalization — the Expansion — fell apart in a nightmare of war, genetic engineering tragedies, and the end of the oil-based economy. Not that life in the Contraction is much better. Genetically engineered crops, and their consequent diseases, are the norm. The power centers of the world have shifted from Beijing and Washington DC to Des Moines, Iowa, where AgriGen directs its agents, known as calorie men, to find seed stock to genehack and rip into new commodities. SoyPRO and U-Tex rice pass for food.

Deftly plotted and evocative, The Windup Girl follows several entangled lives, including AgriGen’s calorie man in Thailand, Anderson Lake, and Jaidee and Kanya, who command the Environment Ministry’s “white shirts,” enforcers of regulations and takers of bribes. There are many more characters in this exotic and richly rendered novel, and their constantly divided loyalties and cocoons of lies are entrancing and moving.

Bacigalupi cares for language in ways rare in much genre fiction, which gives this novel a chance of moving beyond the science-fiction world, much as other dystopian works, such as Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed or John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar have done. Very early in The Windup Girl, one reads, “In the evening, with the factory closed, it was just possible to mistake the empty desks for something other than the topography of failure.” Much later, there is this sentence, which, like the entire novel, is a melding of economic/ecological rumination with a fine eye for place: “Already AgriGen ships are in the docks, unloading U-Tex rice and SoyPRO onto the docks. The sterile seeds of the grain monopolies. . . . From where she stands in the parade grounds, Kanya can see the corporate sails with their red wheat crest logos billowing above the levee rim.”

Like much science fiction, The Windup Girl leans heavily on dialogue; early on, this is fascinating, because the characters and their situations are so convoluted. Later, as events unfold more rapidly, this use of dialogue could distract some readers. And as is so often the case in novels of all kinds that intertwine multiple characters and points of view, the culmination that ravels these together can seem a bit too contrived. The Windup Girl is right at the edge of such a conclusion.

But unlike much work in its genre, The Windup Girl doesn’t forsake people, place, or prose in service of premise or plot. Bacigalupi understands that ideas matter only as lives matter. Which is why, despite a grim view of the century or two to come, there is a sense of hope in the novel, hope for right action and for an evolution in humanity, metaphoric or literal.

Christopher Cokinos is the author or coeditor of several books, including Still as Bright: An Illuminating History of the Moon, from Antiquity to Tomorrow, The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars, Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds, and Beyond Earth’s Edge: The Poetry of Spaceflight. He is the winner of awards and fellowships from, among others, New American Press, the Whiting Foundation, the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, and the National Science Foundation. His poems, articles, and essays have appeared in such venues as Scientific American, High Country News, Astronomy, Orion,, and the Los Angeles Times.