“Around him, the market soi bustles with Bangkok’s morning shoppers. Mounds of durians fill the alley in reeking piles and water tubs splash with snakehead fish and red-fin plaa. Overhead, palm-oil polymer tarps sag under the blast furnace heat of the tropic sun, shading the market with hand-painted images of clipper ship trading companies and the face of the revered Child Queen. A man jostles past, holding vermilion-combed chickens high as they flap and squawk outrage on their way to slaughter, and women in brightly coloured pha sin bargain and smile with the vendors, driving down the price of pirated U-Tex rice and new-variant tomatoes.”
And with this passage, Bacigalupi takes the reader into this version of Bangkok that sounds very much like the Thai capital of today, yet hints of something a little different.
The Windup Girl reminded me of the documentary Food, Inc. (and the bioengineered soy beans that Monsanto produces) and the short-lived TV series Better Off Ted (Ted works for Veridian Dynamics, a massive corporation that does everything, such as growing cowless meat and weaponizing pumpkins. Yes, pumpkins). For Bacigalupi’s bleak world is one where oil is long gone and calories are the indication of wealth, where seed corporations in Iowa reign and pour forth plagues to destroy foods competing with their ‘genehacked’ sterile versions.
Anderson Lake is the AgriGen representative in Thailand who’s looking for the hidden seed bank in Thailand. His right-hand man is Hock Seng, a Chinese Malayan refugee. (I’m a bit puzzled by the use of Malaya, as this is not a term used today. Singapore used to be part of Malaya but split – politically that is – with the peninsula (Malaysia) to become its own little nation (albeit reluctantly at the time). Anyway besides the Malaya/Malaysia discrepancy (then again, arguably this is an alternate universe where anything can happen), the author gets quite a bit about Malaya(sia?) right. “He misses Hainan chicken and laksa asam and good sweet kopi and roti canai.“)
Emiko is the windup girl, one of the New People. An artificial human. Respected in Japan but treated pretty much like an animal by her new owner in Bangkok.
“In Japan she was a wonder. Here, she is nothing but a windup. The men laugh at her strange gait and make faces of disgust that she exists at all. She is a creature forbidden to them.”
Bacigalupi said in an interview with SciFi Wire: “I had no idea how complex I was making the book when I started out. But I knew I wanted to create a very multi-layered, lived-in version of future Bangkok, with some outsider perspectives and some insider perspectives, so that the conflicts would be humanized. I didn’t want paperboard people fighting simple and obvious wars. I wanted the future to feel as complex as the present currently seems. Well, that, and there were a few characters who I created and loved so much that I couldn’t resist giving them more time on stage.”
Indeed, there is so much going on in this book. It is complex, it is dirty, it fills the senses (and then makes you choke on all the sweat, dust and rottenness swirling around). You feel uneasy but can’t stop reading. And it is quite satisfying. Bacigalupi has written a very ambitious first novel and I cannot wait to read more of his works – he also has a YA novel and a book of short stories out. More please!