Thursday, October 27, 2011

Review of "The Windup Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi

Environmental concerns have proven a bugbear for literature - and for obvious reasons: it’s difficult to establish an emotional connection to non-animal entities through text.  Social concerns like abortion, poverty, abuse, etc. are much easier to portray in written form.  Thus it is that documentaries have proven themselves the main vehicle conveying modern day concerns over the environment.  The Windup Girl, however, is for once a novel that proves an effective combination of ecological concerns and tight plotting, producing a good story in the process.

Not written in the most stylistic of prose, Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl nonetheless delivers the goods.  Characters are generally consistent, empathetic, and plausible.  The futuristic scene of a post-oil Bangkok is, however, fully believable, and the plot of political intrigue and individual concern, though having been done before (what hasn’t?) moves at a pace that keeps the reader interested and guessing.

More distressing is the title.  Reading superbly, it simply does not reflect content, however.  The windup girl is not the main character, nor are her concerns delved into or resolved in any meaningful fashion besides revenge.  Lake is, in fact, the main character, and the political, environmental, gender concerns take a backseat--a close backseat--to the entertainment value.  More significant is that the title does not reflect the fragmented narratives which comprise the whole.  The storylines working well independently, they never congeal under the banner of Emiko, the windup girl's, plight.

Where Bacigalupi exceeds expectations, however, is in the creativity he displays describing the devices which motivate the story.  With oil no longer available in infinite quantities, animal power is used to charge capacitors, and as animal power depends on calorie intake, agricultural interests rule.  Offering a great commentary on the direction of present day big oil, these agribusinesses put the population at their mercy.  Diseases are unleashed amongst crops so that people must buy certain companies untainted products.  The genetic structuring of animals is likewise toyed with, the titular character a clone bred for lascivious entertainment and obsequiousness.  The original and ingenious manner in which Bacigalupi intertwines genetic manipulation, agribusiness, and politics has yet to be attempted in fiction, to my knowledge, and provides the strongest novel a strong foundation toward enjoyment.

Winner of the 2010 Hugo, The Windup Girl, for all its shortcomings in literary categories, nonetheless remains pertinent in light of today’s ecological concerns.  It offers direct commentary on the possible direction today’s agribusiness concerns is headed, particularly concerning genetically modified foods (GMOs).  Genes not a child’s toy, it would seem Bacigalupi’s book will become more relevant as science makes its way from the laboratory into our everyday lives in the biological products we consume and interact with.  With the masses distracted by talent shows and tv advertisements, the dangers of gene manipulation described in The Windup Girl deserve to be required reading.  Therefore, this book is recommended for anyone interested in near future speculation on the nature and direction of plant and animal gene experimentation.

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