Wednesday, July 31, 2013

THE WINDUP GIRL by Paolo Bacigalupi - Book Review

[Note: This review was originally published on February 9th, 2011, on]

3.5/5 - Great if you’re in the mood for it, only okay if you’re not.

Title: The Windup Girl

Author: Paolo Bacigalupi

Format: trade paperback

Published: 2009

Genre: Science Fiction

Publisher: Night Shade Books

Landed in my hands: freebie - won from a now obsolete book blog (Dreams and Speculation)

Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen’s Calorie Man in Thailand. Undercover as a factory manager, Anderson combs Bangkok’s street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history’s lost calories. There, he encounters Emiko...

Emiko is the Windup Girl, a strange and beautiful creature. One of the New People, Emiko is not human; she is an engineered being, crèche-grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slave, soldiers, and toys of the rich in a chilling near future in which calorie companies rule the world, the oil age has passed and the side effects of bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.

What happens when calories become currency? What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for the corporate profits, when said bio-terrorism’s genetic drift forces mankind to the cusp of post-human evolution? Award-winning Paolo Bacigalupi delivers one of the most highly acclaimed science fiction novels of the twenty-first century.


The first thing that caught my eye about The Windup Girl — aside from the lovely package: Bacigalupi is blessed by the cover design — was the fact that it was written in present tense. Present tense in a narrative immediately sets off alarm bells in my brain... like, big giant neon signs glaring, shouting, shrieking, “we’re trying to be artsy and buck literary convention!”

In short: it annoys the crap out of me.

We are in grave danger of A Rant on present tense versus past tense in narrative.

To boil it down: past tense is much more common, and I believe it’s because innately we tell a story in the past tense; a “you wouldn’t believe what just happened to me!” kind of thing. There’re other reasons — there always are — but we’re attempting to NOT send this into Rant status. There are always reasons for choosing one tense over another, and I don’t believe a writer worth the fluff in his or her pockets wouldn’t weigh these reasons when sitting down to tap out a story. So I looked at The Windup Girl and made a quick assumption, (and take this for what it’s worth): characters can’t relate a story if they’re dead. Yep. I immediately assumed the opening character wasn’t going to survive. Being anti-spoiler girl, I’ll leave you all to discover whether he does on your own. In other words, it was with trepidation that I waded into futuristic, dystopian Thailand.

This was one of those books that I really got into about a hundred pages from the end, and then — poof! — it was done. That’s not to say it wasn't interesting earlier, more that I kept waiting for Something Big to happen, and it was a lot of black market maneuvering and corrupt politicking, along with some interesting scenery and insight into the human condition.

The concept of the windup girl, Emiko, is enthralling. An entire people genetically designed for servitude, deemed vulnerable in society, and so second-class they aren’t even considered to have souls. She moves like a windup doll, stuttery, jerky movements, and is designed for beauty and an odd grace. I kept waiting for her to return to the narrative, her presence fleeting amidst the other characters’ viewpoints. I wanted more, and I found myself reading another chapter hoping that the windup girl would feature in the next.

These frustrating multiple viewpoints were intriguing at the same time: Bacigalupi has created a cast of multidimensional characters, from varying sides of the conflict, so you’re not quite sure whom to root for as you read. I appreciate that.

The Windup Girl
is not for a lazy reader. You know who you are: those readers who want to escape but not overtax their minds. Those readers who enjoy a good story but don’t want to have to work to keep cultural or intricate world-building specific details in the forefront while they read? Yeah. This isn’t a book for you, sweet cheeks. An excellent story, yes, but not if you’re not willing to work to establish who’s doing what to whom, because of language crossover and the complex details Bacigalupi uses to create this desolate vision of Bangkok. Yeah, no. It’ll lose you. It’s just the truth.

The Windup Girl is also a prime example of why I hate hype. Sure, it’s intricate and well plotted. It’s complex and carries a message. It's a lovely dystopian fable. It’s a beautifully painted picture of a familiar yet dangerous world. It weaves a canvas of a bleak future that is all too easy for us to fall into, and people will love the thrill of The Ugly as a reminder to live their lives today. But all of these things mesh together to make it an intellectual read, and less of an entertaining one for me. It’s an opinion folks, and therefore inadequate for holding anything but a handful of words. Some of you will love The Windup Girl. Myself? I’m glad I’ve a lovely copy sitting on my shelf (truly, it’s a gorgeous book!), signed by Bacigalupi no less, but it’ll be a while before I crack it for a reread.

I can see why it won awards. I get it, the elaborate description, the immersion of the reader, but the complexity that carries this narrative to award status is the same complexity that has me cautioning readers. It’s not for everyone — but if it's for you, you'll love it.


  1. I always wonder when someone gives this book such a mediocre rating: Is there any sci-fi book written in this millenium that you would rate higher? If you ask me, The Windup Girl is right up there with Brave New World and 1984. These books are also not for everyone, but none would question their literary value.

  2. Hi Eddie! As stated in the review, I don't question The Windup Girl's literary value--not at all.

    However, my rating scale isn't just about literary appeal, it's about entertainment value, hence in my rating breakdown I state 5/5 is "read until my eyes went blurry." I felt I had to work too hard to enjoy this book, and moreover, I feel Bacigalupi missed a great opportunity, so why would I give it top marks? Thanks for stopping by. :)