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