This book took me by surprise with how much I enjoyed it. The book starts out kind of slow, but once I got around half way through it, it really picked up. A large part of this is that it’s very similar to cyberpunk books, where it just throws you into the setting and very slowly reveals things. Characters will talk about events and things like they normally would. They don’t need to explain these concepts to each other, they’re already very familiar with them. This is disorienting and leads to a slow start, but I think this book will be very rewarding if I ever decide to reread it, since I will already have a good grasp on the setting. Eventually though, you figure out what they are talking about and then the pages start to fly. A lot can happen in just a short amount of time, and because you understand the setting, a lot can be left unsaid. Things will happen and the book expects you to piece together the implications. There are plenty of moments where I would read a paragraph, and then be overwhelmed by ideas of how things were going to play out. And I wanted to keep reading to find out. The book’s strength is easily its world-building, so let’s talk more about that.
The Windup Girl takes place in a Thailand in the future. But this isn’t a nice, utopian future. This is a shitty one. Climate change has raised the sea levels. Electricity, oil, diesel, and other sources of energy are either limited or prohibitively expensive. Bio-engineering has led to out of control diseases and pests. Scientists work round the clock to try and breed new species of plants that can withstand the bio-engineered plagues that sweep across the globe. Many other countries have fallen, and Thailand is fortunate to still be clinging on.
Unfortunately, not everyone in Thailand is unified. There’s a constant battle and balance going on between the Environment and Trade Ministries. The Environmental Ministry favors closed borders, preventing anyone from bringing in unlicensed organic specimens that may contain a new contagion that they aren’t prepared for. The members of the Environmental Ministry, called “white-shirts”, have seen people die in horrible ways from horrible diseases, and use that fear to guide their actions and their policies. And honestly, they might be right.
The other end of the spectrum is the Trade Ministry. They want to make deals with other countries, trade with them for money and supplies. They argue that the Thai kingdom can’t go on if it is closed off to the world, and that they should be welcoming the new technologies and bio-engineered solutions that other countries have come up with. Closed borders versus open borders. Belief that openness exposes the country to risk versus the belief that openness will benefit the country. Who will win? Vote now on your phones.
This political conflict between Trade and the white-shirts was my favorite part of the book. Once I understood the major factions and where they stood, that’s when the implications of events started to take off. Near the beginning of the book, someone says “Trade is not going to like this.” and I was thinking, “Who the hell is Trade?” But later, something would happen and I would be the one saying “Oh fuck Trade is going to retaliate for this. Oh shit this is bad.” Great conflict.
Now with all of this stuff, you’re probably wondering: “Why the heck is it called The Windup Girl?” Ugh… I guess I have to talk about that. Like I mentioned, my favorite part of the book was the political conflict. But the book also has some other major players. One of which is Emiko, the titular windup girl. An artificial human made in Japan, Emiko is despised by most of the common folk for being artificial. There’s a lot of time spent on Emiko and some good questions on whether or not she is a real person or just a robot programmed by her genes. But overall, I didn’t like most of her stuff. But that’s alright, I had the political conflict to keep me going. It almost feels like the author had too many concepts in one book, and was switching back and forth between exploring the different concepts. But maybe that’s why the book is so popular. Maybe you’ll like the concepts that I didn’t care for, and will enjoy it for different reasons than I do.
All in all, great sci fi. Really glad I read it.