Dystopian sci-fi set in my former home of Thailand is not the most prolific of sub-genres, so when an award-winning debut novel centred around genetic engineering and politics in a future Bangkok came to light I had little choice but to pick it up. Twenty-second Century Krungthep (ancient name of Thailand’s capital and that still preferred by Thais) is not a pretty place to live but by all accounts it’s better than much of the rest of the planet. Global warming and the attendant rising oceans have seen many of the world’s cities reduced to barren floodlands. Through an ingenious system of barriers the Thais managed to save the heart of their empire from similar devastation but modern life throws continual curveballs. Genetic arms races pitting new crops against hideous diseases – deadly to plant and human alike – have decimated the food supply and left the planet in a state of perpetual hostility if not outright war.
Such is the background for Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and in the midst of the chaos, grime and oppressive, sweltering heat we find Anderson Lake, an American ex-pat. Ostensibly in Bangkok to oversee operations at a calorie farm – provision of energy through mammoth springs wound by, erm, mammoths – his real mission is to investigate the source of new varieties of fruits appearing in and around the country, most likely created in a nearby hidden genebank. His assistant, Hock Seng, is a Yellowcard – an immigrant Chinese worker escaping the massacres of his people perpetrated throughout Southeast Asia. Partly a fixer and right-hand man for Lake’s official and illicit operations, Seck is also shrewd and cunning, constantly looking out for any way out of his situation and back to his former glory as a smuggling kingpin.
Opposing the activities of Lake and a host of equally sleazy ex-pat entrepreneurs and shit-stirrers is Captain Jaidee, the famed and feared Tiger of Bangkok. Jaidee operates within the Ministry for the Environment, his mandate to eliminate genetic smuggling and ensure that his nation remains free of the blights which have cursed other countries. To this end he is almost entirely a free agent, left to his own devices to pursue his moral crusade against those who would take advantage of his countrymen, stopping at nothing to burn – literally and metaphorically – his enemies. Subverting the best efforts of Jaidee and his faithful comrade Kanya are the Ministry for Trade and its operatives, all desperate for a taste of foreign income no matter what the environmental cost.
With all these forces in play Bangkok is a tinderbox – albeit a damp and sticky one – just waiting for the spark which will ignite things. This spark takes the unlikely form of Emiko, the titular Windup Girl. Emiko is a New Person, a genetically-modified human being fresh from Japan and designed to show off the very best of modern science. Understandably, public hostility towards such tinkering is high and unfortunately for Emiko and her giveaway ‘herky-jerky’ movements, she simply provides a face for all this rage. Reduced to serving as a pleasure-bot in a strip joint frequented by gangsters and politicians she is routinely subjected to the most humiliating of acts, paid a pittance and left begging for ice to cool her perpetually overheating body. On hearing of a secret haven in the north of the country from none other than Anderson Lake she begins to formulate the plan which will either set her free or kill her.
Paulo Bacigalupi’s worldbuilding in The Windup Girl is second to none, absolutely outstanding. He captures the sweltering, bustling nature of Bangkok so perfectly that I could feel the sweat beading on my brow as I read. The blood and sweat inside the factories, the alternately glorious and stomach-churning smells of the streets, the endless cavalcade of faces, the constant hubbub of conversation – it’s all here. As a beautiful touch he inserts the odd phrase in perfect Thai and Mandarin; not so much that a non-speaker won’t get the gist but enough so that someone with a spattering of both like myself (yeah, show-off, I know) can enjoy that little bit more authenticity and flavour. The cruel and callous nature of this twisted future also come through loud and clear. There are no safe havens in this city and you’d better be careful who you call a friend. In a world where resources are scarce and every game is zero-sum then you have to watch your back at every turn and the creeping paranoia is almost as oppressive as the heat.
The characters are also incredibly strong and motivated, so much so that it’s difficult to know who you’re rooting for at times. Jaidee, for all his upright adherence to the rules and fanatical love of his country is far from perfect. His lieutenant Kanya is no less flawed, her devotion to her captain hiding some darkness in her recent past. Lake and his cronies are outright bad guys but they may not be beyond redemption and you can’t help but admire their guts and conviction in their abilities to twist the world to their desire, despite their casually sipping what passes for a martini while said world burns around them. Perhaps the most intriguing of the lot is Hong Seck, piling subterfuge upon betrayal in order to return to his smuggling roots yet managing to appear as a sympathetic hero character throughout.
For me the biggest surprise of The Windup Girl was that Emiko herself plays a remarkably small role until the closing quarter of the book, when the illusion of stability holding Bangkok’s system together begins to falter and crack. By then she comes into her own and emerges as a desperate heroine, although you can’t help but feel it’s too little too late. The rest of the book more than makes up for her belated blossoming though, and if this is any indication of what Bacigalupi is capable of then we’re in for some twisted, dystopian treats further down the road. It’s not an easy read, far from it – the exhausting nature of the story and setting comes through almost too well in the prose and the plot is intricate, dense and developed in incredible detail. It rewards perseverance though and does so in spades. By the time you’ve caught up with its pace you’ll find other like-minded works almost pedestrian by comparison and be begging for another similar mental workout.