Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

Dec 2010

(Novel) The Windup Girl by: Paolo Bacigalupi

(Reaction) Old Fears in the New World by: Antonio Conejos

If in making something new we have to infuse something old, does that make the product really new at all? Windup Girl contemplates the plunder of the past for the sake of the future as well as life's ability to break free of it's assigned niche, to seek it's own ground.

The world of Windup Girl is one which is inextricably linked to the past, where the ghosts of dead forms jostle (quite literally in the case of Kanya) with the events of the day. Government certificates declaring the safety of a particular food product are seen as "more talismanic than functional, something to make people feel secure in a dangerous world", rather than as scientific assurances that the food is safe.

Even Raleigh, a Westerner accustomed to dealing with the agri executives and scientists who are at the forefront of genetic research, can't shake off the past. He mutters and echoes it almost unconsciously, "the band plays Contraction mixes, songs that Raleigh has dredged from his memory and translated for use on traditional Thai instruments, strange melancholy amalgamations of the past."

Not only does the past mix with the present, it dictates how the present is to be lived. The veneer of high technology, instead of dispelling hallmarks of the past such as superstition and myth, serves to affirm the necessity of the old ways. Thus, finding a replacement for the #4 spindle, a vital cog in Anderson's factory, involves not only the technical aspect of crafting a replacement but also, "the cost of the monks who will need to chant, or the Brahmin priests, or the feng shui experts, or the mediums who must consult with the phii so that workers will be placated and continue working in this bad luck factory".

Beyond Anderson's factory, the city itself owes its continued life in a way to the traditions of the past. As the city is below sea level, only the pumps, which are treated to daily ministrations of incantations but an army of monks, keeps the encroaching water at bay.

That the characters need to look to the past for salvation is an indictment of the bleakness of the present. So worthless is the present that past souls deserve better than being born into a world of disease, shortages and fear. "Jaidee has seen the ghosts as well... Phii are everywhere, now. Too many to count... All of them waiting for a reincarnation that they cannot have because none of them deserve the suffering of this particular world." The present is literally unworthy of past lives. As such, the ghosts of the past taunt those in the present.

That the past is essential to the future is the driving motivation behind the events of Windup Girl. Characters such as Hock Seng only survive the present because of the survival skills imprinted from past brutal disasters. Kanya comes to play a crucial role at the Environment Ministry because of a singular traumatic event experienced as a child.

At the center of these acknowledgments that the past is vital for the future is Anderson, a man whose sole mission is one of dredging up new life from the seeds of the old. So crucial is his goal that he thinks himself above those researchers who had previously created something new, "Those people all sought discoveries. He has found a resurrection." His visit to Thailand is precisely not to discover or create but to rediscover, a clear preference that finding the things of the past is superior to the creation of something novel, "...such splendid abundance, an array of fecund nightshades that no one has seen in generations. In this drowning city, all things seem possible... and behind it all, the Environment Ministry works magic with the genetic material of generations lost."

If the resurrection of new life from the genetic spells of old is magic, then the chief sorcerer of the novel is Gi Bu Sen. Ironically, this man who manipulates the past for the future is himself an embodiment of the past. He is a resurrected ghost, thought dead by many but then found alive; not unlike the strange fruit of long forgotten crops which dot the markets of the city.

Thus, the past unfurls itself around the present and future in a three fold movement: First, the present is linked to the past. Second, this link is so strong that the past determines how the present is to be lived. Third, the past holds the key to future survival. Windup Girl acknowledges the paradoxical truth that to go forward, we must go back.

So intertwined are the past, present and future in the novel that this intersection produces the notion that nothing ever truly changes. Change after all is only possible if there is some variance between what is and what was before. Yet every major facet of Windup Girl, down to the windup girl herself, is a reflection of the past.

Even those explicitly designated as new, the New people, are not new at all but are described as more Japanese than the Japanese; mere echoes of their makers. Indeed, Emiko would be the first to admit that there is nothing new in the present she is in, she thinks to herself wearily at one point, "Even if she is New People, there is nothing new under the sun." Even Anderson, who seeks the past, sometimes despairs of the sameness turning to it produces, "...the Thais, even amid starvation, have found the time and energy to resurrect nicotine addiction. He wonders if human nature ever really changes."

Windup Girl takes place in a futuristic setting seemingly replete with change and progress. But underpinning every invention, action and reaction is a return to the past. In this novel, the past circles and affirms old truths. That life will break free, violently at times, to finds its own place. Algae bred for energy evolve into a disease that kills. A (New) Person will fight, against slavery and oppression, to be free. Underpinning the future of Windup Girl is the recognition that in attempting to create something new, the resulting product is most likely something old.


A lot of science fiction is based on recognizing a trait of human development (cultural, societal or personal) and taking this quality to its most extreme, tortured state. The trait Windup Girl plays with is the human talent/urge/curse to manipulate things around us to suit our benefit. Thus the genomic hacking of agricultural companies is brought to its most horrific possibility with diseases and animals (originally created by man) spreading and killing across the globe, displacing the natural world. Aside from genetic manipulation, the novel also revolves around political manipulation as all the major characters attempt to wheedle and subvert one another. All this manipulation leads to a compelling premise and a fascinating setting.

Where the novel's world is original though, its characters, plot and dialogue are stock. There is the old canny refugee who ultimately turns out to have a heart of gold, the helpless girl who realizes that she has the ability to defend herself, the incorruptible honest man who serves as an example to the people and the Judas who betrays him for (what else?) money, the sinister agent of foreign interests who (you guessed it) also happens to have a heart of gold, the corrupt and debased regent who control the strings of an invisible and mute monarch, the brilliant scientist who demands to be worshipped as a god, etc. (Note to all mad scientists: no matter how smart you are it is impossible to come up with a believable, decent speech saying you're a god. Plus, since your legs have been crippled by disease I don't know if it's the brightest idea in the world to be hanging out in a boat in the middle of a sunken city.)

You'd think if we'd gotten so ace at cracking the genome that we'd be able to manipulate the DNA of these characters so they'd have some life in them.

Perhaps even more painful than the characters is the clumsy irony that the novel deals to them. Yes, it is sort of ironic that an agri man, he of the masterful knowledge of genehacks and genetic origins, falls prey to a new illness he never anticipated. Yes, it is a twist of irony that at the end of Windup Girl it is Emiko who is cool while Anderson burns with heat he cannot dispel. These are all as ironic as that old Alanis Morisette song which quite frankly was, ironically, not too ironic at all.

If you're looking for the definitive vision of an emaciated future, stick with Neuromancer; The Windup Girl reads like a cheap (spring powered) knock off of Molly, Case, Armitage, Wintermute and the rest of the cyberspace gang.

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