The Windup Girl: 2010's science fiction "it" book brings poetry and excitement to ecotastrophe

The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi's debut novel, is causing quite a stir in science fiction circles, with whispers of a Hugo nomination and critical praise from all sides (including me: I just nominated it for the Locus prize for best first novel).

Bacigalupi is already well known for his amazing short stories, such as the Hugo-nominated "The Calorie Man," which is set in the same world that The Windup Girl takes place in. He has a deserved reputation as a prose-stylist whose facility with language borders on the poetic, and as someone whose visionary ideas benefit from this poetic presentation.

In The Windup Girl, we are plunged into a fraught and difficult world: energy collapse and environmental disasters have changed the shape of the planet, swamping its coastal cities and destroying our capacity to travel or move freight at high speeds. Add to this a series of genetic-engineering screwups that lay waste to the world's crops and trigger wave after wave of punishing plagues, and the rise of midwestern American genetic engineering cartels that control the world's supply of plague-resistant GM crops.

Anderson Lake is one such Calorie Man, working undercover in Thailand, a rogue state where generippers reverse-engineer the food cartels' sterile crops and combine them with carefully hoarded genetic material from the Thai seedbank. Anderson lives in Bangkok, undercover, running a factory nominally involved in the manufacture of experimental windup springs that can compactly and efficiently store the energy pushed into them by GM elephants. He is the hub around which many stories spin: that of Hock Seng, a former wealthy Malay Chinese who has fled an ethnic purge and now runs Anderson's factory; that of Jaidee, the Tiger of Bangkok, a hard-fighting, uncorruptable shock-trooper in the Thai environment ministry; and Emiko, a "new person" manufactured in a Japanese vat to be a perfect servile helper, abandoned by her owner to the brothels of Thailand, where she is cruelly mistreated.

The Windup Girl is a story about colonialism, independence, mysticism and ethics, sex and loyalty, and the opposing forces of greed and empathy. Filled with complex and flawed characters who must struggle to overcome their failings, The Windup Girl has no easy or pat answers, but rather charges the reader to summon empathy for imperfect humans who fail as often as they succeed.

But The Windup Girl is also an exciting story about industrial espionage, civil war, and political struggle, filled with heart-thudding action sequences, sordid sex, and enough technical speculation for two lesser novels.

Bacigalupi shows every sign of becoming one of sf's major talents, if he isn't already. In addition to being a magnificent and passionate writer, he is a smart and genuinely nice guy, a truly winning combination. Kudos to him for this wonderful debut, and to the independent publisher Night Shade Books for bringing it to us.

The Windup Girl


  1. I seem to recall reading a short story set in this world scenario a year or so back. Something that was here on Boing Boing.

  2. Why does the future look so much like the past?
    These are the characters according to the review here:
    Anderson Lake is one such Calorie Man
    Hock Seng, a former wealthy Malay Chinese
    Jaidee, a hard-fighting, uncorruptable shock-trooper
    Three men with distinct identities and professions. And then the token female: Emiko, abandoned by her owner to the brothels of Thailand…

    1. Jaidee’s female lieutenant is actually more critical to the book’s plot than Jaidee, and IMO better “fleshed out” (pardon the pun) than Emiko.

    1. I actually bought THE WINDUP GIRL about 6 weeks ago as a Kindle book for $9.99. But when I checked today on, the Kindle version had disappeared. Must be some argument over republication rights between the publisher and Amazon. One thing’s for sure, I’m backing up the file so Amazon can’t delete it from my Kindle hard drive!

  3. Does this book start strong, building a compelling, richly drawn alternate reality, only to destroy any goodwill the reader may have by introducing numerous pointless new characters and settings, giving the protagonist some monkey-nookie, and repeatedly bringing the villain back in increasingly improbable ways at increasingly improbable places and times, capping it all off with an afterthought of a Stephenkingy deus ex machina resolution?

    ‘Cuz that’s what happened in Mainspring, the last book I partook of after reading a glowing Doctorow review.

    1. Let’s hope not. I’ve often wondered if these are books he is asked to write a cover blurb for? I also noticed they all seem to go his Amazon store. Not that a blame a brother for trying to make a buck–I have heard that writing is not the best path to untold riches–but i do find it amusing.

      That said, I read Boneshaker based on his review, and thought it was entertaining but not quite all that …

  4. It sounds like he got an Environmental Issue of the Economist and turned each of the stories into characters. In other words, I can’t wait to check this out.

  5. So, first, Noahpoah, if you didn’t think Mainspring was brilliant, don’t bother with The Windup Girl.

    I’m surprised this is only being reviewed by Cory now. It came out this past September. It is well written and astonishingly conceived and, Cory’s review of it, as well as his review of Mainspring, is spot on. Windup Girl is a brilliantly conceived and beautifully written book.

    Read it.

  6. Mainspring is quite good for the first half or so, and now that I’ve gone back to re-read Cory’s (briefer than I remember) review, I suppose it’s not inaccurate to say that the review is “spot on.” But it’s also wildly, terribly, reader-betrayingly incomplete. Mainspring goes astonishingly far off the rails in the second half. It’s fascinating to me that a book could start off so strong and then go so badly awry.

    Is the Windup Girl like this? It sounds like the prose is top notch, and the story interesting. But I’m skeptical of Cory’s ability to judge a book in its entirety, given that he didn’t even give a hint of a warning about the awful, awful end of Mainspring.

    1. Usually it’s the authors.

      I don’t think you can call this one a review. It’s more a blurb by Cory for one of his esteemed colleagues. And no, I don’t think there’s any deception here. Unless something is explicitly called a review, authors rarely “review” other authors.

  7. Just finished reading this(thank you public library) and found it to be most excellent. Like all great speculative fiction, it is a great combination of survival stories and a hella scary brave new world. Fans of William Gibson will dig it for certain…

  8. Since I didn’t read Mindspring, I can’t comment there. However for Bacigalupi’s book, I’d almost say the opposite, it was a bit slow in the beginning, and it took me a few chapters to get into it. But once its wheels hit the road, hold on! it really takes off. You won’t expect where it takes you, but you will not feel betrayed by it either.

  9. This is a great book. For me, took a bit of effort to get my hooks into it but once I did it was quite rewarding and hard to put down. Now, looking at Monsanto’s (Monsatan’s) latest victory against life on planet Earth (GMO Alfalfa), the books premise becomes more likely.

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