August TBR Challenge Review: The Windup Girl


This shelf of books is bothering me. It contains a number of lovely hardback and trade paper editions of books that I intended to read when I bought them, along with a few books that I have read and (mostly) loved. Some haven’t been read precisely because they are hardback and trade paper editions; I read almost exclusively digital books now, and so these have languished. I finally decided that the TBR Challenge is the best way to deal with this backlog.

This month, I read The Windup Girl by Paulo Baciagalupi; when it was released, I felt I HAD to buy it in print, because the cover art was so beautiful. See?

Windup Girl, The - Paolo Bacigalupi

Anyway, it was a fascinating, if somewhat depressing, book, and I highly recommend it to people who can handle ambiguous endings and no romance. [ETA: It sort of fits the “steamy reads” theme this month; there’s some sexual activity and the main female character is a sex worker.]

This future-set fantasy takes place in Thailand, in a world where political and economic power is concentrated in the hands of agri-businesses who control the (patented, sterile) seeds of the only crops that can grow in the toxic, hostile environment of the post-petroleum age. The Thai government has funded and maintained a plant recovery project that has used advanced gene manipulation techniques to rescue some plant species and bring back others from extinction, keeping the Thai people mostly fed while keeping the Thai economy out of the hands of the agricultural conglomerates that control or have ruined many other countries.

This is a book about divided loyalties and the struggle for survival, and it is very much a book of flawed characters making difficult choices. The “windup girl” of the title is a New Person, engineered both mechanically and genetically in Japan (where low birth rates make the New People necessary for labor), but who is illegal (and considered by many to be an abomination) in Thailand. Other characters are refugees, hired workers, and members of the government department charged with protecting the environment.

Each point of view character (initially four) is striving to either survive or prosper, and there are various alliances and conflicts that start to make sense as the reader learns more about the world of the book. Then a major character dies, another major character commits a shocking act, and suddenly the plot spins off into barely controlled chaos and the possibility of mass destruction. The last part of the book is a wild ride for the reader (who is now equipped with enough knowledge of the world to appreciate it).

I admit, I finished the book utterly depressed about how possible this future is for our world. The book won the Hugo Award in 2009, and since then we seem to have gotten closer to the world that the book depicts While the novel ends on a hopeful note, I can’t say that the book made me feel anything positive about the future of humankind. That’s not (for me) a reason to avoid it or wish I hadn’t read it, but others might not find it so.