The Windup Girl is a rare bio-punk story about a dystopian future caused by rampant genetic warfare and climate crisis. It is about how humanity has twisted nature through genetic engineering to produce GMO crops, and “generipped” fauna such as the cheshire cats (who have completely supplanted domestic cats and ravaged the ecosystem). The Windup Girl is one of these creations. A Japanese bio engineered human, a New People, who has been designed to serve rich patrons. While dystopian, the book doesn’t dwell on that. Instead, apparently things are improving while everyone still understands that the world was a completely different and fantastic place about 200 years ago (pre-Contraction) while fuel and electricity was plentiful.
Since the book has been out for several years, there are good summaries already available and I won’t reiterate the storyline here. I found the book a little difficult to get into, but I think that was only because I had just finished reading Caliban’s War which was much easier to digest. Windup Girl has a culturally dense method of storytelling, immersing the reader into a futuristic Bangkok where fossil fuels are rare and people are a lot more conscious of wasteful expenditure. There are many references to foreign words and gods and talismans that at first reference is incomprehensible (farang for foreigner). However, this all gradually makes more sense and perseverance beyond the first few chapters is well rewarded.
There are plenty of fantastic characters to choose from in this book. Some play their roles while others evolve over time.
Anderson Lake: Thailand is one of the few holdout survivors equipped with its own prized seedbank, a target for all the “calorie companies” – huge multinationals that employ economic hitmen such as Anderson Lake whose job it is to bend these nations to the will of their employers. Anderson is a foreigner masquerading as a kink-spring factory owner who is really looking to access the seedbank and bring back one of their own rogue genetic scientists Gibbons. He lusts after Emiko, the Windup Girl, protecting her, but not at the expense of this grand plan (since he exposes her the the regent in a last ditched effort to gain favor).
Hock Seng: A yellow-card Chinese who fled from Malaysia after losing his family. He is a hardened survivor always planning his next move. He has had better times as a former merchant vessel captain, but now he finds himself working as Anderson’s right hand man at the factory. Seng embezzles funds, sets up escape routes and spies on Anderson (via his driver) in order to gain intelligence he can later use has leverage if need be. His goal is to rebuild his shattered life by stealing and selling the kink-spring plans kept in the factory safe. When circumstances change, he adapts by looking to turn in the sought after Windup Girl and later when they change again to work with the calorie companies to open up trade in Thailand. While Seng lies and steals, his justifications are understandable, especially when his target is Anderson which the reader already knows has his own, darker ulterior motives. At the end when Seng flees the city, he turns back for Mei, the 14 year old factory girl who helped him during the civil unrest. He wrestles with himself, knowing that involving her and leaving her alive only exposes him (which it does), but he cannot bring himself to harm such an innocent. This makes Seng one of the most likeable characters in the book, but it’s an affection that slowly builds, only peaking at the very end when he turns back for Mei.
Emiko: She is well educated, beautiful and obedient (as per her genetic design). While her skin is flawless, the lack of pores makes her overheat, especially in the tropics of Thailand. All windups also have the ability to move tremendously fast and are immune to many pathogens. The Windup Girl, discarded by her Japanese patron who probably thought he was being kind in releasing her rather than mulching her as he was required to instead of transporting her back to Japan. She lives as a kind of circus freakshow prostitute and performer at a sex club. Regularly abused and humiliated (includes scenes not appropriate for non-adults), her thoughts turn to suicide but then hears rumors of other windups living together in a village to the north. This hope keeps her alive and enduring. New People are thought to be soulless and sub-human. Emiko’s yearning to live among her own, her affection for Anderson when he is sick and dying and no one else dare care for him, and ultimately her ability to overcome her “programming” and lash out at (and ultimately completely destroy) her abusers in a fit of rage make Emiko special. However she still is guided by her genes and training – a need to serve, a need to obey. Emiko’s special circumstances allow her to think outside her training and react in ways she was formerly forbidden to. At the end of the story, she encounters Gibson, a brilliant, though morally corrupt rogue geneticist who tells her he can clone her and alter the clone so that it can reproduce naturally. The thought of having a child draws Emiko in. We are left with drawing the parallels ourselves: domestic cats vs cheshires and humans vs windups.
Jaidee and Kanya: Both whiteshirts, basically environmental police who work for Thailand’s Environment Ministry, the most powerful political group always in opposition to the ascendant Trade Ministry (as in real life, trade and environment are in opposition). The role of the whiteshirts is to enforce embargos, carbon quotas, quarantine disease, and fight plagues not only those that ravage people, but also crop diseases. The Environment Ministry is really responsible for Thailands very survival. Jaidee is the “Tiger of Bangkok” because he enforces these environmental rules and is incorruptible. Kind of like Robin Hood. He makes sure the rules are enforced even among the rich and powerful. Which causes him to be a thorn in their side and ultimately a target. With his wife kidnapped, he shames himself by admitting to deeds he didn’t do in order to obtain her release. He is “defrocked” as a captain of the whiteshirts, and attones as a monk. However, when he realizes his wife is already dead, he confronts the Trade officials and is murdered, made an example of again by dumping his body in front of the Environment ministry. The whiteshirts are incensed and Jaidee is martyred and a citywide crackdown ensues. When the regent is killed by the windup, Trade pins it on the Environment ministry and coup begins, with Trade looking to take over and crush the whiteshirts with the support of Anderson and his corporate backing.
Jaidee is the naive idealist who is martyred because of his directness in confronting Trade. Kanya is his loyal lieutenant who cautions him on his rash actions and encourages him to reward his people with the bribes he receives (his intention was to simply give it all the to ministry). All the while, Kanya turns out to be Trade’s mole, and after Jaidee’s death is haunted by his spirit always in her thoughts, her guilt manifested. She sees him everywhere wondering what he would do. After the coup, she is rewarded as the head of the Environment Ministry, answering to Trade. At the very end of the story she becomes the new Tiger when she assassinates the foreign calorie company people who have arrived to access the seedbank, its wealth of unique genetic diversity perhaps the only reason Thailand has held out independent of the multinational calorie companies.
While Kanya’s act of securing the seedbank from those who wish to manufacture profits and bioweapons keeps the status quo of the currently storyline (trade vs environment, Thailand vs the calorie companies), Gibson’s act of modifying windups to procreate has the potential to eventually supplant humanity with genetically engineered successors, immune to the bioweapons previously released to ravage the Earth). Kanya’s last act to prevent the seedbank from falling into the wrong hands provides some hope that natural humans will continue to use their ingenuity to survive, but Gibson’s windups seem to be the future.
In summary, The Windup Girl is a fantastic book, one which you need allow yourself to be immersed in to fully enjoy. The cultural density to the book reminds me of The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed and Dune. It creates a rich environment that is itself a narrative, without the need for characters or plot. By comparison it makes The Expanse seem facile, since it really is just a projection of present day into the future. The Windup Girl imagines a wholly different future in a foreign place. It leaves you wondering that once the genetic manipulation genie is out of the bottle, if there is any way to fight it without a cascade of environmental consequences, or if the only course of survival to the “engineer” humanity itself.
(Amazon) The Windup Girl