The Windup Girl, Not Your Everyday Apocalypse Novel

A good friend recommended this novel through Goodreads, so I thought I should give it a shot. It has been a while since paying attention to awards and The Windup Girl holds two of the big ones; the 2009 Nebula Award and 2010 Hugo Award, as well as a few others.

It was bleak, illustrating some of the more undesirable traits of humankind during a time that really needs them, but that made the writing imaginative and different from anything that I had read in a while. Where apocalyptic science fiction has fallen on the standard tropes of zombies and plagues, The Windup Girl examines our potential future in a different way, one of unsustainable development and greed.

There are two things that I found myself having particular affinities to while reading this book. The first, I have been in Thailand and loved it, and that is where the book is set. The Thai language creeps into the dialogue, creating a sense of realism due to the differences and particularities of the Thai people and those who are not from that country.

The other is the implication that the genetically modified foods and seed corporations began a decent into a world dominated by a few seed companies that could provide the calories needed for survival. My interest there stems from my switch to local, slow grown foods a few years ago and having family in the farming business. With the decisions and awareness that comes from those things, comes the understanding that there is a resistance by small farmers to using the product provided by huge seed companies that are interested in creating a monopolized seed and crop culture, Monsanto being the foremost.

I must say that I enjoyed this novel mainly because of its inventiveness and the respect that it gave to me, the reader. My latest reads that have any sense of unique innovations behind the plot have felt like they have grabbed my nose and pointed me in the direction they needed me to go to explain the plot and the background of the story-line. The Windup Girl does not. There is a great deal of respect given for the reader to fill in the blanks of how the world ended up in this ugly situation and to use their own imagination at the calamities suffered by humankind.

Just enough hints are given to imply that messing around with the genetic makeup of crops to make them higher in yield and caloric content spawned blights and pests that led to epidemics and shortages that were responsible for wiping out large populations of the industrialized world. This leads to tropical bastions, like Thailand, that have maintained enough purity in their seed stock to produce enough natural foods so that they could provide calories to sustain its population. It also led to corporations who desire to control these food banks to search for ways to tighten their grip on the crops that the world produces.

Enough background. Great stuff, interesting characters, the title character being one of the most interesting of all. Living creatures did not escape the genetic experimentation, with humans beings the final stage. With perfect skin and immune system because that was how she was built, Emiko’s distinguishing traits is that she moves like a windup doll, in a herky-jerky way, so that she is recognizable to the rest of humanity. She also has the flaw that she overheats due to her closed pores, the same feature that gives her flawless skin. Being built for service, her creators instilled her with the desire to serve, at a genetic level. This leads to some horrible scenes in a house of ill repute, which I believe were supposed to illicit sympathy from the reader, but for all the creativity afforded the rest of the novel; this seemed a bit stereotypical by bringing in a Pretty Woman, sympathy for the subjugated sex worker type thing.

Excuse the long summation. It’s been a while and like I have said, a different sort of novel, using food, the most basic and necessary of things and often overlooked, as what brings humanity to its knees.

I fell in love with the way Bacigalupi weaved the story threads to flow together. There are five major characters and each story-line has enough surprising twists to be entertaining individually. Together, though, is where the real power comes from as I see them interweaving to tell the story of human nature in its weaknesses and perseverance.

All of the characters need something or someone else to survive. Of all of them, the relationship between the calorie-man who is representative of the big food producing corporations, finding something that he needs in the bioengineered Emiko is part irony and part unavoidable. There could be no other way for a man who has let the corporate greed that has put the world’s food supply in jeopardy by engineering the seed stock, then profiteered as the blights and pests killed off the producing plants which forced them to engineer more resistant strains rule his actions and conscious, except end up with an attraction to a genetically modified, subservient woman.

The Windup Girl has certainly given me a lot of pause to reflect. I have found an attractiveness as of late to end of the world style novels, but the tropes have become stale. The world ending disease, nuclear war, natural disaster and/or zombies have all become banal and many are unimaginative, simply twists on the stock. Bacigalupi plays with our food supply, which has recently been a new worry, especially if the farming giants continue to serve and protect their own mono-culturing interests.

The other frightening thing is that this series of occurrence that prompted the world of The Windup Girl happened over the course of centuries. What we would recognize as our time and conveniences are mysteries to these characters. I found myself asking questions about whether we would recognize humankind’s declension due to our own folly and greed, or ignore it as it would be happening at such a slow rate. A bit like the question of global warming, in that do things actually have to happen, really happen, before we decide to act, really act, to keep conditions from deteriorating further?

It has turned into quite a point for me to ponder as this concept also destroys the typical hero-type that rises up in the face of a sudden and dramatic shift of events. If things are left to slowly degrade, the sort of person willing to face-off with such difficult conditions cannot fit the standard definition of ‘hero’ as they are usually members of the populace that are simply struggling to survive in this setting.

Is there a way, then, to set things right without needing the hero archetype, as I have described, to fix things for us? I would like to say that a slow, collective stance may be just as effective, if not more effective, than the actions of a few to save us from ourselves.

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