The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (2009, Night Shade) has been on my metaphorical to-read shelf for years and years. Long ago I heard a podcast interview with the author and thought, hey that sounds interesting: A guy who writes about how GMOs are going to be the downfall of civilization. That’s pretty much what I’m watching happen every day, out here in corn field land. Sign me up.
The Windup Girl is set in Thailand in some probably-not-too-distant future, when diseases resulting from constant genetic modification have ravaged the planet to the point where many countries have completely collapsed. Thailand is one of the hold outs because of their heavily protected seed bank of genetic material. The world is run by those who control the few remaining sources of energy, referred to generally as calories. Everything is measured in calories—how many calories does it take to feed a man so he can do that particular job for so many hours? Everyone is terrified of the next plague that will maybe wipe out humanity once and for all. Scientists continually attempt to find the perfect genetically engineered crop to feed the world while resisting all diseases.
And that is by far the most interesting aspect of The Windup Girl. It’s one of those books that loses some of the aspects I’m usually looking for in a novel (story, character development) in favor of exploring an idea. It happens a lot, even with excellent authors, because it’s one of the pitfalls of science fiction (and especially in first novels, which this was for Bacigalupi). You ask yourself a question, and attempt to answer it with a novel—in this case, where is genetic modification going to take us as a species? But it’s easy to get so caught up in answering the question that you forget there’s a story going on as well.
I loved all of the discussion of gene ripping, as it’s called in the book, because it made me question some things I had held to be absolute truths, and that hasn’t happened to me in a while. I’ve long come down on the side of all genetic modification=bad, but there’s a really interesting discussion here in regards to what constitutes life (and how little we understand how it works). Bacigalupi raises questions of evolution, of how we define an invasive species, and of how relevant our species even is in the ongoing, never-ending struggle of existence. It’s completely fascinating, and at the end of the day, I’m still not sure what I think. Though the ending was a complete non sequitur for the characters, I kind of love the note on which he ended the discussion.
But this was intended as a novel, not a really interesting conversation about genetic manipulation, and that was where it fell flat. It took me forever to get into this book. I started listening to it months ago, and kept having to force myself to keep listening. I’m sure a major part of the problem was that I kept stopping and starting listening, and as there are several major storylines, several hours in I was still trying to figure out who the hell all the characters were.
Several hours later I still kind of didn’t care. It took me until about halfway through, when the discussions on genetics came into the picture, to really get into it at all. For the most part, none of the characters are sympathetic—I was hoping most of them would get run over by a megadont (a genetically engineered elephant, transportation of the future). Even Emiko, the windup girl, who is ostensibly the main character, was kind of uninteresting to me.
On that note, I feel like I have to address the rape question. *Spoiler alert.* Going into the novel, the only thing I knew about it other than that it was a dystopia about the collapse of civilization was that there was all this rape. And there is. And it’s really disturbing, particularly because it’s not…more disturbing? At first I was listening to the scene and thinking, oh this isn’t that bad—but then took a minute to reflect and realized it’s pretty horrifying—just not written that way. Even though Emiko, as she’s being raped, is terribly distraught, the actual description of the rape sounds more like a porno. I almost never, ever read book reviews, but in this case, I went and read a few (after finishing the book) to see how others reacted to the rape scenes. Responses were typical—most of the male reviewers kind of shrugging over it or pointing out that Emiko gets her revenge by literally ripping the head off of one of the rapists. Many of the female commenters distressed about sexism and Bacigalupi’s general inability to write female characters.
I would argue that the female responses are generally justified, because it’s definitely true that there is way too much rape in science fiction, as there is everywhere in the world, and the whole sexbot goes on a rampage thing is overdone. But I can’t say this was the worst example I’ve ever seen, and could argue that the lack of true horror in the rape scene was more the result of poor writing than misogyny. I felt like Emiko was very much in the line of the kind of characters men write when they’re trying to be feminist but kind of missing the point. Emiko is a male fantasy (perfectly beautiful), and when she goes all super hero and starts kicking asses, it feels more like the kind of stereotypically female character you get in a lot of traditional comics. They may be kicking ass, but they do so in unrealistic skimpy little jumpsuits so the men can admire their boobs. They feel flat—as do Emiko’s attempts to find her freedom and autonomy, and the very random way her storyline is wrapped up.
The only other major female character is an outwardly cold, unfeeling lesbian, which apparently is a nonissue in this otherwise fundamentalist, patriarchal society? Women are consistently mistreated, but no one seems to be bothered by a lesbian in the military (so yay, I guess). I did find Kanya one of the most compelling characters in the novel, but not by much, and not until nearly the end. So yes, it’s easy to say Bacigalupi can’t write dimensional, believable female characters. But in this novel, he wasn’t so hot at writing male ones, either. All of them are one-dimensional—Anderson, arguably the true main character, as he gets the majority of the screen time, was so one-note that I sighed with relief when he REDACTED FOR MASSIVE SPOILERNESS.
I have to point out that this is not a post-apocalypse book—this is a dystopia in a world still very much caught in the throes of collapse. The futility of trying, again and again, to exert some kind of control over the forces of nature through technology and so-called human ingenuity comes through loud and clear. Bacigalupi does an excellent job depicting this ongoing collapse, against the very appropriate background of Bangkok in all its tropical, sweltering, oppressive splendor. I feel like I could talk about this book for days, which is more than I can say for most of what I’ve read lately. I would recommend reading it for that alone and for the interesting conversations on genetics…if it didn’t take so damn long to get through.
If you want to know more, Abigail Nussbaum of Asking the Wrong Questions has written a great review. No surprise that it is a critical review and is written by a women. All the menfolks fall all over themselves to say how wonderful it is.