Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I must start somewhere, and where better to begin than with the title? Why is this called The Windup Girl? Although Emiko's actions have a significant effect on the plot, I never felt like the book was about her or that she was as special as the title implies. As a creation, Emiko is fascinating. She is a slave, obedience instilled at genetic and conditioned levels, beauty bred into her. Smaller pores make for flawlessly smooth skin, but in Thailand's climate they also make her prone to overheating. Her genes also dictate how she moves, with the stutter-stop motions that give her the moniker "windup girl" despite her biological nature. Abandoned in Thailand by her former Japanese owner, Emiko is abused and humiliated as a prostitute. Once she realizes she can have wants, she wants nothing more than to escape. Once she realizes she has the power to effect this, despite what her training and genes tell her, she becomes dangerous.
Simultaneously fragile and fearsome, Emiko is a wonderful creation. So it is a shame the book does not spend more time focusing on her transformation from subservient girl to wilful woman. There are so many characters in this book, so much else going on, that Emiko's development does not get as many pages at it deserves. On the other hand, a book focusing more on Emiko would be, admittedly, a very different book. So I shall focus on the book we have here.
I admire Emiko as a character—I think it's difficult not to admire her, because Bacigalupi has taken such a well-worn trope and integrated it into his genetic morality play. She is a lesson in biological determinism, a creature at the mercy of the genes her creators tailored to ensure her obedience—and a celebration of the ability to transcend one's genome, to become more than the sum of one's parts. Emiko is the human in the inhuman. As a symbol, she is very powerful. Perhaps that is why this is called The Windup Girl.
I could go through the rest of the cast and discuss each in turn. Bacigalupi's strength and weakness in this book is an ability to focus, in turn, on so many different characters. However, I will just single out the two other characters worthy of note for how they change over the course of the story: Hock Seng, Anderson's yellow card Chinese refugee; and Kanya, sidekick to Jaidee the Tiger and kickass morally-ambiguous protagonist in her own right.
Hock Seng annoyed me, especially toward the end, because he was always lamenting his misfortune and powerlessness. Yet he never gave up, despite it truly seeming at times like fate conspired against him. In Hock Seng, Bacigalupi shows us a man who has fallen so far that he has lost everything he cared about: his business, his family, and all of his property. Like Emiko, he is foreign to Thailand, a refugee seen by others as so much detritus. He tries so hard to rise again, but he never quite makes it—sometimes because of ill fortune, but sometimes because he is so used to remaining unobtrusive, to biding his time, that he does not seize opportunity when it presents itself. Hock Seng is a broken man constantly trying to mend himself.
Kanya annoyed me at first but grew on me in ways I did not expect. Bacigalupi pulls a bait-and-switch, setting up Jaidee to play a pivotal role in the coming conflict only to replace him with Kanya. She is as unprepared for this new responsibility as we are for her accession. Oh, and it doesn't help that she's a mole for Akkarat, the Minister of Trade and enemy of her band of merry White Shirt enforcers. And that was really the last piece of the puzzle that her character needed, something to elevate her above the "idealist fighter with a scarred childhood" to "conflicted fighter with a scarred childhood." Watching Kanya walk the line between her loyalties, and seeing how much fun Bacigalupi has putting her in ironic positions, is half the fun of reading The Windup Girl.
It's not that all the other characters are poorly written, but none of them resonated for me in the way Hock Seng and Kanya did. Some of them, like Anderson and Akkarat, just seemed to drive be there to drive forward the plot, mouthpieces for their respective ideologies. The latent conflict in The Windup Girl, mostly dormant until the climactic chapters, is between the Ministry of Trade and the Ministry of the Environment. The former want to trade, naturally, while the latter want to protect Thailand from mutant pests and voracious strains of food created by too many decades of calorie company gene-ripping. Of course, what with recovering from a coup and all, Thailand's government sucks. So when Anderson, Akkarat, and everyone else who wants money, power, or money and power start stirring the pot, the situation becomes very ugly, very fast. Then Emiko murders someone, and all hell breaks loose.
Having had the fortune never to live in a war-torn city, I cannot attest to the verisimilitude of Bacigalupi's depictions of Kung Threp as the White Shirts go to war with Trade. It feels like a plausible portrayal to me. There are idealists on both sides, but for the most part the two sides consist of ordinary people swept up by an ideology. And those caught in the middle are confused, cynical, and misinformed—yet so apathetic, because they are so used to a corrupt regime. The radio can't be trusted, for it is in the control of one group or another; the officers who are supposed to arrest you for your contraband source of methane simply look the other way (for a price). There are laws and regulations, and then there is reality. There is authority and there are enforcers. The gulf between the two is vast, in our world and in this future Thailand.
Bacigalupi never quite explains how Thailand (or the world) arrives at this state, but that's OK. There are vague references to an Expansion and Contraction—implied, rather explicitly, to do with globalization and peak oil. Enough governments have collapsed that megacorporations run amuck with their own private armies. Genetic modification brought the ruin and now may hold the keys to saving humanity's staple crops—that or the highly-coveted seedbanks hidden around the world. Anderson's references to the disaster in Finland, where his company attempted to seize a seedbank only for its possessors to destroy it, set the tone for his time. In a world filled with environmental and economic collapse, we finally achieve a form of equality—just not on the highly-developed level those of us in developed nations all fantasize about. And, naturally, since these people are human beings and not robots or saints, in this world where everyone is equally screwed over, some are more screwed than others. There are some haves among the have-nots, and as Hock Seng can testify, one's status can change without warning or appeal.
That ultimate uncertainty of one's fate is one of the principal themes of The Windup Girl, and it is a harrowing lesson to learn. None of the characters really achieve what they want—and if they do, as it's implied for Emiko, it is not exactly what they were expecting. Rather than settling for a happy ending, a sad ending, or the depressingly postmodern choice of no ending, Bacigalupi delivers a . . . real ending. Not real in the sense of realistic, but real in the sense of being messy, both in terms of writing and narrative. Lumped in with the surreal invocation of kink springs, megodonts, and yes, airships, the ending is abrupt but not unwelcome.
I wish I could praise this book more. The more I consider its flaws, the less I consider them damning . . . yet I can't feel as enthusiastic about The Windup Girl as I desire. Maybe it's Bacigalupi's style, which is almost clinical and can at times interfere with connecting to his otherwise interesting characters. Maybe it's the plot, which only gets exciting after an interminable time humming, hawing, and generally dragging its heels toward the climax. Mostly, though, it's the disparate elements Bacigalupi combines to tell his story. In reviewing them—Emiko, Hock Seng, Kanya, Anderson and Akkarat's conflict, etc.—separately, I partition them. I can observe their individual features but not so much how they relate; those relationships, in my opinion, are the weakest links of The Windup Girl.
There is something to be said for easy books, books that do not challenge—or, if they challenge, do so only in a manner that is ultimately reassuring. We all crave confirmation and validation; fulfilling that craving once in a while is fine. By that same token, there is also a time and place for really hard books, books that challenge not only sensibility but ability, ability to comprehend or understand let alone believe. Often easy books get labelled "beach reads", but I think this conflates difficulty with complexity. Some hard books can be beach reads too, if only because they are as entertaining as they are thought-provoking. Thus, "hard" or "complex" is not always a synonym for "drudgery" or "boring."
Nevertheless, The Windup Girl—a complex book—did, at times, feel like a chore to read. Bacigalupi's style, as I mentioned above, could be slicker. The plot could be better. The characters, well, they're all right. The Windup Girl is a bunch of adequate narrative elements that come together to make a whole that is, like its eponymous character, more than the sum of its parts.