Lowdown: A bleak human story set in a future post sustainability’s collapse.
Most science fiction fans will gladly tell you that science fiction is not about the future but rather about the present: it tries to tell you things about the present by projecting from a potential (or a fantastic) future. Thus stories from the golden age of science fiction, like Asimov’s, were influenced by humanity’s entry into the space age and the appearance of the first computers. Contemporary science fiction shares the trait, only that a lot of it is dominated by grim views of the world we are about to leave behind for our children through our unsustainable consumption of earth’s resources. The Windup Girl is one such work, only that it is a particularly important piece of science fiction work with it having won 2010’s Nebula and Hugo awards – the most prestigious in the science fiction community. It's not that common for the same book to win both.
The Windup Girl is set in Bangkok, probably around a century or two from now. It works by introducing us to a multitude of characters that the book follows as they are meticulously developed, all the while providing us with more and more information about this future world in slowly paced, lengthy and articulate descriptions. The world unravelled before our eyes is a world most of us would not care to live in: global warming is a reality, with water levels much higher, and destructive and unpredictable weather patterns the norm; oil is gone, and with it any chance of cheap energy; diseases are rampant; corporations determine who will have food on their plates; and gene hacking is the norm, manifesting itself in various forms. The result is a bleak world full of corrupt characters where the most decent person around seems to be the artificially created windup girl that gave the book its title. Indeed, the result is a world where human life is one of its cheapest resources.
The plot tells us that Thailand has weathered the storm relatively well, but Thailand still has to face the conflict between the forces that want external/commercial influences in and those that want to keep Thailand as clean as possible from potential external threats. Both sides happen to be much more corrupt than idealistic. The conflict between the opposing sides builds up in a rather convoluted way, and it is clear that the plot itself is not the main event but rather the portrayal of the world in which the plot is taking place. The best example I can give there is to do with the descriptions on the use of springs and kink for generating and storing energy (often in ways that do not make much sense), powering everything from fans to guns and scooters. The result of this book about a potential bleak future is that you, the reader, gets to think a lot about the setting instead of caring for the various characters and what takes place over them occupying the center of your attention.
The time has come for me to mention Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi’s follow up to The Windup Girl and the book with which I chose to start reading Bacigalupi for the simple reason that book is a simpler and much easier to digest (it's also much shorter). The two are very common yet very different: both are set in pretty much identical worlds and both share almost every element; on the other hand, while Ship Breaker is a simpler, straight to the point adventure story where the setting is in the background and almost taken for granted despite its elaborate nature, The Windup Girl is a book about those little details in the setting, a book where the details are the main event and the characters and plot almost feel secondary.
This difference is what makes or breaks The Windup Girl. That descriptive language and the length it goes by is often annoying yet there can be no denying the unique nature it gives the book. I’ll put it this way: I appreciate The Windup Girl for being written the way it is because it made me think hard of where us humans are heading, but on the other hand I am happy the majority of books are written in a more conventional way.
I’ll finish on a personal note: The Windup Girl was the last book I bought myself in paper form prior to delving into electronic books. I ended up reading it electronically and selling my paper book (pictured above) on eBay at a huge loss: I got an electronic copy of the book through my Aussiecon membership, and between reading on my Kindle and reading a paper book I know which I prefer.
Overall: It makes you wonder, it makes you think, but it can also makes you annoyed. 3.5 out of 5 stars.