The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi – Off the Shelf

The Windup Girl book coverA Secular Morality Tale – 4 Stars

The Windup Girl is part novel part visceral experience. From the first page, the reader is immersed in the gritty, fetid and hot streets of a future Thailand. While gradual introduction to a world is standard in most novels, The Windup Girl uses full immersion and challenges you to catch up. This will not be for every reader. The pacing and style will put off some readers. If you are looking for a light and easy read, you should look elsewhere. While you are not likely to experience enlightenment while reading this novel, it is intelligent and well written.

Plot summary

We are immediately introduced to a dystopic and hungry future. Years of genetic modification of food and living creation has resulted many severe and deadly unintended consequences. The worldwide economy has essentially crashed while food from ages past has gone extinct from persistent and unchecked blight and scores of people are killed by reoccurring plague. The world is run by genehackers or calorie men in a business that specializes in the genetic modification of food. Although they are implicit in the current state of affairs, they are of vital importance as they have the ability to produce new strains of food resistant to the blight. The genehacking has gone beyond food and animals and humans have been modified. The plot truly unfolds when a modified human, a “windup girl” and a calorie man become entwined and set into motion events that will alter the landscape.

The Good

Excellent Execution

I am finding it difficult to determine how much I enjoyed this novel. The first third of the book was completely engrossing and I was immediately drawn in. The euphoric feeling did not last but I was certainly sold on the concept from the beginning. Energy or calories rule the world. Traditional form of energy are no longer viable and in large part, the energy gained from food powers the economy. Power that is provided by man and by beast. The Dystopian setting and the persistent natural disasters added much to the overall concept.

This novel won the Hugo for best Novel and it is easy to see why. In addition to a well executed idea, the characters are interesting and varied. There is no hero in the story but “bad guys” and “worse guys” and one naively innocent person. At its heart, the novel is a “message story”. Although we have the intelligence to modify nature and may obtain the ability to bend it to our will, we are rarely privy to consequence of our meddling. While it is tells us a morality tale, it avoid being “preachy” or political.  I generally do not like message fiction.  It tends to be pretentious and takes from the plot.  This is great example of message fiction done right.

The Bad

Let me Catch Up

The reader is dropped into the middle of the action. It is written in a manner that seems to assume you know what is going on in this world. The story lacks what you might consider an exposition and the reader is immediately playing catch up. The story is liberally sprinkled with Thai words and concepts that were foreign to me. Thankfully my Kindle was able to provide me with some definitions but occasionally I was left high and dry. This was not the only non traditional method of story telling. Some of it worked some of it was difficult to follow.

The biggest problem was two-fold. Repetition and loss of steam. It seemed that the reader was told 100 plus times the names of the three major plagues/blight and the some of the concepts of the world are explained over and over (and over and over). This was fine early on but after the first third, this caused the novel to drag. Fortunately, this does not last and the novel ends with a bang.

Final Thoughts

An interesting concept, mostly excellent execution and some unexpected twists make this novel and great read. This is not literary fiction but it is not light reading. If you enjoy a novel with agenda that is not shoved down you throat, some interesting sci-fi elements and dystopian world plagued with blight, this might be for you.

Content Advisories

It is difficult to find commentary on the sex/violence/language content of book if you are interested. I make an effort to give you the information so you can make an informed decision before reading. *Disclaimer* I do not take note or count the occurrences of adult language as I read. I am simply giving approximations.

Scale 1 – Lowest 5 – Highest

Sex 4

There are two graphic scene of a character being sexually abused. The character of the Windup girl works in a adult club. She is not viewed as human and is subject to behaviour that would otherwise be considered dehumanizing. Consensual sex is implied on a couple of occasions.

Language 2

Much of the derogatory comments are in Thai. If you do not speak the language, it will likely be lost on you. The adult language is otherwise mild.

Violence 3

There violence between armed elements of the society. There is war related death but it is generally not graphic.

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Tim Written by:

Tim is a lawyer, sports fan, parent, husband and book lover. He runs his own legal practice and is the founder of The Literary Lawyer book blog and a contributing writer for Tim loves to share his love of reading by providing reviews to entertain as well as provide information to help you make an informed reading decision.