Lasting Fiction Review: Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl by Karen Bovenmyer

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Lasting Fiction Review: Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl

by Karen Bovenmyer

Lasting fiction, or books on the New York Times bestseller with staying power, teach the reader specialist knowledge they would have not otherwise have access too. This issue, I’d like to take a close look at Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009), winner of the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Compton Crook, and Campbell Memorial awards. Named one of the best novels of the year by Time, Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, and the American Library Association, this book builds a clear vision in visceral strokes, well rendered characters, and asks those questions science fiction most wishes to explore.

Bacigalupi majored in Asian studies and traveled extensively in southeast Asia. After a close encounter with SARS in Bangkok trapped him in the sweltering city for days waiting for a flight out, he was inspired to explore those confined and hopeless feelings through fiction. He returned to Thailand specifically to research The Windup Girl, and the sense that this author truly understands Thai culture, politics, and society is evident throughout this novel.

Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl communicates this deep understanding of Asian cultural conflicts as experienced by an outsider. He twists these understandings into a dark future so deeply affected by energy crisis, the succumbing of bioengineered foods to various plagues, and the violent socio-cultural upheavals accompanying times of hardship that it is difficult to sort out what is truly Bangkok of now and what is only the potential Thailand of Bacigalupi’s imagining. His layered setting, mixing invented terms with local Thai lexicon and seemingly alien but actually real objects, gives this story dimension that lends a lasting reality. Bacigalupi’s economic and socio-cultural exploration may indicate some shifts in speculative fiction as a genre.

Is science fiction moving away from imagining exploration, aliens, and alien words to an innerscape of the corners of a dark Earth future? Does the loss of NASA’s space shuttle program and the extra-terrestrially uneventful forty years since the moon landing signal that, culturally, Americans are no longer that interested in the vastness of space? If not, what is it that we’re actually interested in? Recent mega-popular “space” television, Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) and Firefly (2002), both focus on the human story—what we do when we are pushed to the brink and must fight over resources. Even these shows reflect the fears of a shrinking, warming Earth. Like Bladerunner (1982), Bacigalupi’s novel paints a dark future of continued racism, conflict, and resource pressure that might be attractive to modern concerned Americans. This book asks again: What does it mean to be human?

This novel reminded me right away of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (1996), a rich, vividly-realized, complex socio-cultural setting populated with brutal, solitary, self-interested characters who will stop at nothing to achieve their—if not outright corrupt, at best morally ambiguous—goals. Bacigalupi, like Martin, alternates these point of view characters and depicts them as multi-tiered. Even the most irredeemable point of view character exhibits occasional acts of human kindness. All are depicted in shades of grey; a system of modern storytelling that may be becoming the convention.

Bacigalupi’s setting is a physical, visceral world that engages all senses and, as I mentioned above, is a detailed imagining of future Thailand after fossil fuels have been exhausted. In addition to rich characters and setting, the author also develops these characters along standard character arcs, using storytelling techniques from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), including, notably, mentors, snatching victory from certain defeat, and what Vogler calls The Ordeal/Reward cycle (The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers 1998).

These western storytelling elements are mixed with tropes I recognized from college years spent watching Japanese science-fiction animated films. Titles like Black Magic M-66 (Shirow, Black Magic M-66 1987) are particularly reminiscent of the plight of poor Emiko, the windup girl. I don’t think it’s a mistake that this dark future reminds of other titles from the same era of Japanese animated film, such as Akira (Hashimoto 1988), Ghost in the Shell (Shirow 1989), and Appleseed (Shirow, Appleseed 1989) all of which were released by Bandai with English translations in the mid-1990s. As Bacigalupi is about my age and would have been in college studying his Asian major at the time, these films might have influenced the formation of his helpless, abused, “new people” character of Japanese Emiko. Gritty matter-of-fact futures exploring what it means to be human, created or not, were also depicted in the western film Bladerunner (1982).

Bacigalupi has shown us that we are still asking this question about what our humanity means, especially as we face our fears of a dark future. The commercial success of this book indicates that science fiction, as a genre, is expanding globally to embrace non-western cultures in ways that award-givers and consumers appreciate reading. However, The Windup Girl’s grimdark future, especially when compared with the commercial success of Game of Thrones grimdark “past,” means interesting things for what we, as people, think about ourselves, where we’ve been, and where we are going. We hope our fun and uplifting contribution to the genre here at Mothership Zeta shows a brighter, alternate view of “who we are” and some of the emerging new directions science fiction of the 2020s will take.

Karen Bovenmyer graduated from the University of Southern Maine in 2013 with an MFA in Popular Fiction. She’s published science fiction, fantasy, and horror poems, short stories, and novellas. She teaches, advises, and mentors writing students at Iowa State University and serves as Mothership Zeta’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor.

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