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REVIEW | The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade Books)

Paolo Bacigalupi is being heralded as one of Science Fiction's best writers of recent years, having won and being nominated for multiple awards.  His debut novel The Windup Girl caught my eye from the moment I heard the title.  "Is this related to Steampunk," I thought?  "Is it Green Punk?" Which only just before the release received any sort of specific meaning.  It certainly sounded like it could be on both counts.  I was further grabbed by the truly beautiful cover art by Raphael Lacoste.   The final cover actually has a more yellow-tinged look to it to further evoke the smog like conditions of the city.

The Windup Girl is a extremely vivid dystopian future Thailand in a world besieged by food plagues and mistrust. Paolo's superb prose doesn't waste one word in describing the setting.  The world has contracted and segregated itself.  Everything bad that environmentalists now fear has come to pass.  We have run out of fossil fuels, most animal life has died off, and there are massive food famines caused by various food born plagues some of which have terrible effects on humans outside of killing all the crops.  

Governments and Nations have toppled.  The oceans are rising and former places of power are now under water. Religious zealousness rules many parts of the world while the majority is controlled by extremely powerful Calorie companies who grow/design the mass of the food supply. Power is generated by Giant elephants called Megodonts and human labor that is wound into springs to power most anything including Airships and other vehicles.

The narrative is broken into 5 view points, which works well to speed things up somewhat through the slow middle.  However, it was difficult to like and connect with many of the characters as they are designed to survive in this terrible future and make some very tough choices sometimes too easily.  Even the Windup Girl character is hard to to sympathize with, which is surprising given the despicable things done to her.  You can't feel at all for the Calorie Man and Jaidee who is supposed to come off as a hero of sorts is more of a disappointment even to the end.

The Steampunk aspect is more like Clockpunk with the spring tech, but I wish it was described a bit more in depth. Especially in regards to the functioning of the New People or Windups as they are more commonly known. Even with this element I'd say this is as close to Green Punk as anything I've read so far.  The Green Punk mentions are apt in regards to the way people now have to make use of every scrap they have since production of goods is now much more difficult and costly.  And this definitely does not have steampunk's romanticized view of things and focuses on believable technology.  In fact this is a future that is all too real for my liking and very depressive in nature.

Bacigalupi  is a voice that must be heard.  Paolo's work is sure to influence the next generation of writers, but I fear he will become a writers' writer. Meaning that he'll garner high praise and good reviews, but not the large sales he truly deserves for the almost too realistic views and ideas of a future I hope never happens.  In the end The Windup Girl is a bit too depressing for my taste but it has an amazing setting with a great opening and almost as good ending yet suffers in the middle with a less than great storyline and mostly unlikeable characters.  I give The Windup Girl 7 out of 10 Hats.  Paolo's style may be a bit too post modern for some tastes, but his work is light years ahead of what most authors are willing to try.  Readers of Ian McDonald's River of Gods and China Mieville would absolutely love The Windup Girl. Bacigalupi has left the door open for at least more short stories in this world, which I would check out. 

Free Speculative Fiction Online kindly working with Night Shade have three of Paolo's short stories here, if you want to get a good taste for his writing.  This sample includes The Yellow Card Man and The Calorie Man both of which are related to the world of The Windup Girl and Hugo nominees.

Book Link: US | Canada | Europe

You Might Also Like
The Quiet War by Paul McAuley
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
The City & The City by China Mieville
So Much Steampunk, So Little Time


Ben said...

I loved his short fiction but really didn't think that this novel was up to par...

The Mad Hatter said...

I liked it, but I didn't enjoy it and I think that is an important distinction. Paolo clearly has an amazing ability with words, but the storyline and characters were lacking a bit. The world is what made me rate it as high as I did. I'm interested in what else he has is working on.

Lex said...

"Readers of Ian McDonald's River of Gods and China Mieville would absolutely love The Windup Girl."

Spot on. I've thoroughly enjoyed every China Mieville book I could get my grubby paws on, and Ian McDonald's Desolation Road is a recent favorite of mine, and I loved The Windup Girl. My love of weird settings and depressing future stories makes up for any failings in the writing (that I frequently fail to notice).

Canada said...

Like all avid scifi readers, I heard of Bacigalupi's Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel, and I certainly wanted to read it. I fairly recently read a great short story of his previously, 'Pop Squad', in Brave New Worlds (a very well written, disturbing dystopian story), and I wanted to read more of him.

The Windup Girl is one of the best novels of any genre I have read, in many years. It deserves its Hugo and Nebula awards, as it is a masterpiece of futuristic world building, within the confines of Earth's future. It's characters are sensitively portrayed in detail, and the plot is intricate, surprising in its turns, and penetrating in theme. It is what any aspiring speculative fiction writer wants to achieve. It is a benchmark, a masterpiece. I don't use superlatives like these too often. The novel is that good.