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Paolo Bacigalupi – The Windup Girl

December 5, 2014

90. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (2009)

Read By: Jonathan Davis
Length: 19h 43m (544 pages)

Genre: Post-apocalyptic/dystopian sci-fi

Started: 22 October 2014
Finished: 03 November 2014

Where did it come from? The library booksale (paper) / The library (audiobook).
Why do I have it? I’ve liked Bacigalupi’s short fiction that I’ve read, and I’d heard a lot about his novels.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 26 October 2013.

Thinking about life
in post-oil-crash Bangkok makes
me want a shower.

Summary: Imagine a world where fossil fuels have all but run out, the rising sea level is threatening to swamp Bangkok as it has already destroyed so many of the world’s coastal cities, wealth is counted in calories, and bioengineered animals are a common sight, while bioengineered plagues that infect people and crops alike run rampant. This is the world of the characters of The Wind-Up girl. Anderson Lake is in Bangkok masquerading as a factory manager while searching for evidence of plague-resistant foodstuffs kept under tight control of the Thai government. His factory foreman, Hock Seng, is a yellowcard Chinese, fled from plague and genocide in his own country, but barely tolerated by the Thai, forever looking for an advantage, if not the chance to return home. Emiko is one of the Japanese-created New People, born and bred to serve, but now abandoned by her master in this foreign city full of those that despise and fear New People, even while coveting her beauty. The city is watched over by the Trade Ministry and the Environment Ministry, each with its own internal politics and partisans, and each grappling with the other for a greater share of control. Bangkok is a city held in a precarious balance, one that could tip over into chaos and violence at any time, but the spark that catches the city on fire comes from a place no one had expected.

Review: I’m having a tough time pinning down exactly how I felt about this book. I think the best I can say is that while I admired it, I didn’t love it, or even particularly enjoy it all that much. I’ll talk about the good stuff first, before I try to unpack what about it didn’t work for me.

So, the good stuff. Bacigalupi is a hell of a worldbuilder. He drops you right in the middle of his future Bangkok, where you can immediately feel the sweltering heat and dust and tension that permeates the city. (I can still feel it when I think about this book, weeks after finishing.) He also doesn’t info-dump at all – there’s no newcomer that needs the world explained to them to act as a reader stand-in, so Bacigalupi expects his readers to be paying attention, and to piece together the way the world is and the things that the characters already know from details and hints and subtleties of their thoughts and conversations. It’s a little intimidating at first, particularly since I’ve never been to Southeast Asia, so there were a few times that I couldn’t tell what bits of Bacigalupi’s world he was drawing from current Thai culture, and which were his own imaginings about our post-apocalyptic future. But I eventually got my feet under me, and once I had a clearer picture of the world he’d created, I was duly impressed – both by the subtle yet complete way he built it, and by the complexity of his vision of that world. Because he’s clearly put a ton of thought into how this world works, at all its levels, and all of the pieces fit together seamlessly; there was never a part where I thought “No, I don’t things would be like that,” so I was able to stay totally immersed in his world, as grimy and uncomfortable as it was.

Okay, so, all of that is good, and is stuff I would ordinarily look for in my sci-fi. So what was my problem? A large part of it was that I had a really hard time latching onto a story. There’s so much going on in this book, and Bacigalupi shifts between the point of view of a number of different characters, whose stories (at least initially) don’t seem particularly connected, that it took me well over half the book before I realized that the story wasn’t really about any of them, but was more about the city as a whole… but even then, a story about a city is a story about its people, and I had a really hard time latching onto the story of any of its characters. The only one who I particularly cared what happened to them was Emiko, and particularly in the first half of the book, her POV chapters are few and far between. (It’s not that I disliked the other characters, exactly, but I somehow never got attached to or invested in them, so I couldn’t bring myself to care whether Anderson was able to deliver the genetically resistant seed stock to his company, or whether Hock Seng could steal the plans for the factory, or whatever their individual agendas were.)

Part of my problem may also have been the audiobook narrator. I’m usually relatively indifferent to narration style – most narrators I’ve listened to range from really excellent to at least largely inconspicuous. And while Jonathan Davis might be fine in another context, I don’t think he was the right fit for this book. In a book with this many characters, and this much influence of the Thai language, he didn’t really provide distinguishable voices for most of the characters, and when he did, they were inconsistent, with accents or distinct vocal patterns fading out in the middle of a conversation (or occasionally in the middle of a sentence!), making it very difficult to keep track of who was talking. (He also… tended to… talk… very slowly… which may or may not have been a conscious choice for the made the characters or setting, but it made the listening longer than it really needed to be.) I think this book probably would have been best served with multiple narrators corresponding to the different POV chapters; but as is, I kind of wish I’d read rather than listened. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: This book is really well constructed, and even though it didn’t click for me, I wouldn’t argue that it deserved its Hugo and Nebula awards. It reminded me a bit of Perdido Street Station (in tone/feeling more than story), and I think that it’s at least worth a try for anyone who’s interested in dark and complex stories set in a very believable not-too-distant post-fossil-fuel future.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Book Monkey, The Literary Omnivore, Opinions of a Wolf and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: “No! I don’t want the mangosteen.”

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2014 12:46 pm

    This is one I have been back and forth on …. I think your review has convinced me it is a pass. :)

    • December 7, 2014 6:45 pm

      Fair enough, although I know some people that absolutely love it, so I’d hate to dissuade you based on my idiosyncratic reaction.

  2. December 7, 2014 6:43 pm

    I’ve been back and forth on Paolo Bacigalupi as well. I hear super mixed things about him, and I know I can’t read that book he has about floods (can’t handle floods).

    • December 7, 2014 6:47 pm

      Jenny – I really really liked his short story in Epic, and he’s clearly talented, but in this case, I just didn’t get involved in the story. Is Ship Breaker the one about floods? Because I have that on my shelf too, and am still interested in reading it.


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