Novel * Paolo Bacigalupi * Post-Global Warming * 2009
The Wind-Up Girl is a novel that takes place in a future that has suffered the worst case scenario for both global warming and the rapid development of genetic engineering. The story takes place in a future Thailand and follows several disparate characters throughout a moment of political upheaval in this new world. There is Anderson Lake, who would be considered an American if there was an America left to be from. Instead he is a “calorie man,” which means he works for one of the massive agricultural companies which have seemingly taken over what’s left of the United States after the effects of rampant global warming have ravaged the country. These enormous companies are responsible for genetic tampering of foodstuffs on a massive scale, which both feed the masses as well as opens the door for horrific genetic plagues that ravage crops and populations. As a calorie representative, Anderson is responsible for finding new genetic stock to exploit. Hock Seng is a chief employee of Lake’s, and runs the factory that Lake ostensibly operates in Bangkok. Hock Seng is Chinese, and China has had some pretty serious shit happen to it in this particular future. Long story short, fundamentalist Muslims genocided millions and only a scant few were able to escape into places like Thailand. They are known as “Yellow Card” Chinese and are not particularly welcome. As a Yellow Card refugee, Hock Seng is extremely paranoid and spends a good deal of time figuring out how to recover his once great fortune. You know, before all the genociding and persecuting.
While these two men are foreign to Thailand, Jaidee Rojjanasukchai (no, my cat did not fall asleep on the keyboard, that is the character’s name, LOL OTHER COUNTRIES) is as Thai as it gets. He’s a leader within the white shirts, which is the enforcement arm of the Environment Ministry. Their job is to make sure the Kingdom is sufficiently protected from the many environmental dangers present in this future. Plagues, refugees, the ocean, an unsettled population, and all the other problems of a difficult new world. Jaidee takes his job very seriously, although as a person he seems like a pretty chill dude. That said, if it were up to him, he’d banish anyone who isn’t Thai from the country and basically eradicate the Trade Ministry. He’s as isolationist as it gets.
The story takes place after what is known as The Contraction. Essentially, our current time is referred to as The Expansion, when humanity exploited fossil fuels and spread to all corners of the Earth and trade knew no boundaries. Then the oceans rose and consumed most of the coastal cities and war and famine and genocide. Bad times, in other words, and is now called The Contraction. The world got smaller. Planes and interstates no longer existed and humanity reverted to an earlier mode of existence. Except now there’s weird chameleon cats that are all over the place, and energy is stored in springs wound by genetically engineered elephants. And some other stuff. Anyway, enough time has passed from the initial slow-motion catastrophes that new technologies are coming into effect that are enabling the reintroduction of global trade. Most of the conflict in the novel is born out of this. Thailand is in a position of relative strength, and as such there is the potential for much profit. The Trade Ministry is the faction that supports a new Expansion. On the other side is the Environmental Ministry, who have spent the last hundred years or so protecting Thailand from the many ills of the world, by any means necessary, and are thus far more skeptical of opening up Thailand to new threats beyond their borders. Both sides have good points, but since we’re dealing with humans making power plays, things get super messy super quickly.
Added to this volatile mixture is the titular Windup Girl, Emiko. She’s the true wild card of the narrative, although she doesn’t seem to really do much other than get horribly abused most of the time. Emiko is Japanese, and considers herself a “New Person,” which is to say that she’s a genetically engineered construct. She was “built” as a servant/consort for wealthy Japanese businessmen. As such she is super hot. In more than one way, actually. Emiko was built to be aesthetically pleasing along Japanese lines, so she has very smooth skin at the expense of not having pores. She can’t sweat, so she can’t really cool herself down and is prone to overheating. The other big downside (for Emiko, naturally) is that she has had servitude genetically programmed into her. When she is introduced in the novel, she is working as a sideshow in a whorehouse, and yes, many bad things happen to her. There is a lot of philosophical questions about Emiko’s soul and whatnot, but regardless those scenes are a difficult read. Nearly everyone in this society regard “Windups” as non-human, soulless freaks and the public is therefore entitled to treat them as garbage. The aforementioned white shirts don’t even kill them. They “mulch” them. All that said, Emiko does possess some qualities that normal humans do not, and by the end of the novel she certainly learns how to use them to her advantage.
The world of The Windup Girl is very clearly a result of unchecked technological advancement leading to a series of catastrophic disasters that very nearly ended humanity. Bacigalupi seems to have made a logical progression from our current precarious position nearing the end of what he terms “The Expansion” and extrapolated his dim view of our future from where we are trending in terms of genetic advancements and of course, climate change. The trajectory of humanity, then, is a constant push for progress regardless of the feedback the very Earth gives back in the form of floods, plagues, and the like. Essentially, The Expansion was born of technology progressing and becoming more powerful without humans developing the social, emotional, and intellectual wherewithal to use such power without, you know, turbo-fucking everything into oblivion.
Us humans, though, we can’t help ourselves. Throughout The Windup Girl are references to mass extinctions and genocides, all of which are accepted as inevitable considering the circumstances of The Contraction. In the pursuit of maximizing our ability to spread across the globe and basically conquer Nature once and for all, we inadvertently set into motion the destruction of the very ability to live anywhere or do anything. Now, this is not a particularly new train of thought. It seems that we’ve been doomed as a species for as long as I can remember. What is of note in The Windup Girl is that humanity itself is very much alive, doing all kinds of human things, despite the radical changes that have overcome the planet and various societies restructured to cope with those changes.
The society in this novel, Thailand, is set up in a very specific manner so that a conflict of this new era of humanity can be explored. None of the characters that live in this hot, fetid future Thailand are particularly nice people. Lake, the calorie man from Des Moines, is a condescending douchebag. His Chinese factory manager, Hock Seng, is crazy paranoid. Like, whoa, hello, dial it back a little, dude. He also refers to his daughters as “useless daughter mouths,” because I guess China is gonna China. Jaidee, the white shirt, is a jovial and high-spirited guy with a ton of charisma, but he’s a xenophobic dickhead with very little grey area to work with. Everyone treats Emiko like it’s her fault she exists. Emiko herself is frustrating because she spends the majority of the novel getting beaten and raped and insulted and raped some more and even when she finally breaks out and kills some motherfuckers it is still difficult to really relate. To be fair, that’s the point. There’s a wall between Emiko and the rest of humanity, and it seems she prefers it that way. At no point are we given a scenario where all she wants is to be a real girl and blah blah blah. As the book ends and Bangkok is a drowned city, Emiko seems to be in a pretty good place, hanging out and being cool (literally) and along comes a magic gene-science man who thinks he can make the New People actual people. We’ll see about that, but in the meantime at least Emiko has found a kind of peace.
In the meantime, we have a cast of not-very-nice but very real humans acting like most humans do: in their own self-interest or in the interest of their tribe. If anything, these people are very clearly born from the difficult world in which they inhabit. You can understand Jaidee’s fear and loathing of outsiders. You can forgive Anderson Lake’s subterfuge and lies in his pursuit of the betterment of his people. The push and pull between these different interests manifest in the greater conflict between the Trade Ministry and the Environment Ministry. The various arguments made on behalf of one or the other are often eloquent and heartfelt. Those who side with the Environment point of view are doing everything in their power to not repeat the catastrophic mistakes of the past. Unchecked technological progress proved to be ruinous because those in charge of its direction refused to take the responsibility needed to control that progress. However, many times those within the Environment Ministry go too far in the other direction. You get the feeling that if Jaidee had his way he’d seal Thailand completely off from the outside world and then begin purging everything not Thai or “natural” so he could have a nice clean homeland. The problem with that should be obvious, but since that dude lives without a grey area at no point does he realize it. But that’s humanity for you. This novel does a lot of things well, but it is at its best when portraying people as a complicated series of contradictions and paradoxes. The future, unknown, is terrifying because regardless of whether or not any of the disasters described above actually transpire, we can be sure that our irrational nature ensures that possible self-destruction will always be a possibility.