Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

"She waits, expecting him to strike her. No one tolerates impudence from New People. Mizumi-sensei made sure that Emiko never showed a trace of rebellion. She taught Emiko to obey, to kowtow, to bend before the desires of her superiors, and to be proud of her place. Even though Emiko is ashamed of the gaijin's prying into her history and by her own loss of control, Mizumi-sensei would say this is no excuse to prod and bait the man. It hardly matters. It is done and Emiko feels dead enough in her soul that she will pay whatever price he chooses to extract."

While perusing the shelves in the SF section at work, the cover art for a particular book continued to draw my eye. We had a single copy of The Windup Girl available then. Every time I'd pass the book, even if I was with a customer, I'd find a free moment to ogle over the image. You can see it for yourself. It's certainly worth a second... third... fourth look.

Dirigibles score the smog-ridden skies of a ruined metropolis. A creature akin to an elephant ambles alongside littered streets lined with souks that brim with whatever miscellany of wares. And what are those!? What else? Teetering telephone poles: seeming relics of a dystopia that has achieved autonomy over the expensive oil that once pumped through its historical veins.

That was my initial reaction to the cover alone. And I have to give mad props to the artist, Raphael Lacoste, for hitting the story's main nerve head on. I came away from the image with only questions. Without so much as reading the back, I had an accurate impression that the story had real depth to it, as though this image were a feasible shadow resulting from the socio-political blunders of our own time.

When the news reached me that The Windup Girl had received the Nebula Award for best novel, I couldn't hold out any longer. It went straight to the top of my list. How fortunate that Paolo Bacigalupi's prose do not fall flat to Lacoste's beautiful setup. I can't say I was disappointed--far from it. If you'd like a sample of his writing style, Bacigalupi currently has a few stories available on his site.
Despite the title, the novel revolves around several protagonists, as it takes us from one perspective to the next with each chapter. This approach can be jarring in some cases. As a reader I can have difficulty anchoring myself to a story when it has as many perspectives as this one. In this case there was no exception, but I did find myself easily attaching to the setting instead of a character, which kept me flipping the pages wanting to know more about the nightmarish future that Bacigalupi has envisioned for us. And as we go along, and the plot builds and builds, it becomes evident that showing the world through many different eyes is central to getting a rounded view of this world.

How do we experience the future of Thailand? We see it through the eyes of a cynical expatriate with his unending ulterior motives. As a bitter, self-serving old man, former royalty of a fallen empire. As an idealistic native, willing to die for a cause even if it means taking the whole world down with him. As a woman who lives a contradiction of the things she knows and the things she wants to believe in...

Finally, we see it as Emiko, the windup. She offers a nonhuman view of our future selves: how will we appear once removed from our most grievous misdeeds? And as irony would have it, we find in this "soulless husk" the most human perspective of all.

I feel The Windup Girl deserves an exceptional rating at four out of five stars (three being average). The quality of this novel is mind-boggling considering it was Bacigalupi's first. It had emotional depth and cultural relevance, despite his caveat in the credits. Already it has received the Nebula and is up for a Hugo. I fully enjoyed the ending. But I do feel the arc of the story is not quite wound as tightly as it could be. It left me wanting more--which is a marketable quality. It's also the kind of thing that loses you half a star from jerks like me. That's what you get for making the world wait for a sequel, Mr. Bacigalupi.

That said, it has become a book I enjoy recommending to customers. I hold a copy at Customer Service for just such a purpose.

available works by paolo bacigalupi


  1. Great review, Tim. I'm definitely intrigued.

  2. Go get a copy if you can afford it. It is definitely good enough to put your life on hold for. That's what I did.

    In fact, I think if Bacigalupi turns out to be as prolific as he is imaginative, then he very well may be the next BIG deal in the SF world.

    The book is that good. And like a said, a first book. Wow.

  3. I had already been planning to read this, but now I'm really excited. Definitely taking a trip to Barnes and Noble once the next paycheck comes in. :)

  4. Call and make sure they have it before you go in. The book is rising in popularity, but before I started recommending and the book began to sell, we only ever had a single copy on hand.

  5. Excellent review! I just checked out this book from the library and will be reading it soon. So excited. :)

  6. I've been eyeing that book for awhile. After I get through some of the other books I finally bought after picking them up multiple times, I may pick this up, too. Nice review, Tim.

  7. at least this book sounds different and not deriviative

  8. that it is.
    nice to meet you, eeleen.

  9. Thanks for joining my blog. Though I'm a fan of memoirs, I respect all writers and the efforts they put into their creative genres.

  10. wow what a great review! i'd never heard of this book before. something to consider, it seems :D

    thanks for sharing!!

  11. If you liked the review, I promise the book is even better. ;)

    I don't believe I am following your blog. Sorry. But I hope all is well in Belize. It's a truly beautiful country!