Now you all might want to sit down for this bit of news. Okay? You ready? I read a book I actually own! I know, right? Pretty darn amazing. Proof I just don’t borrow books from the library and ignore books I paid for with pocket money. And, get this, the book has been on my shelf since about 2010. Who’s awesome?
Um, that would be me in case you were wondering.
Oh, so the book, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. This was his debut book and it pulled in the awards including the Nebula and Hugo. The story takes place in a future version of Krung Thep, or as westerners might recognize it, Bangcock. It is a world in which global warming has raised sea levels so high the city would be underwater without huge levees and pumps. Fossil fuels are almost gone and those who can use them are either governments or incredibly wealthy. Power is generated and motors turned by the use of springs that are wound up tight to store energy. Factories are powered by giant “megodonts” turning huge wheels.
It is also a world that has been ripped apart by “calorie companies,” a few global corporations that control the food supply through “genehacked” sterile seeds. The calorie companies have pretty much destroyed all of the world’s seedbanks, leaving no viable seeds that can be grown for food without their help. In the process of all this genehacking, agricultural pests have mutated, destroying entire regions and bioterrorism is everywhere. Thailand is one of the last resisters of the calorie companies and keepers of a secret seedbank.
And here we have Anderson Lake. He is a calorie man and if the Thai government knew he was there they would string him up. But he is working undercover as the owner of a spring factory that has created a new spring that can hold significantly more energy than any other spring around. Only, since Lake isn’t actually interested in the factory, none of the springs are being sold and the factory doesn’t run well.
Thailand’s ruler is a child queen and while she has a regent, the country is run by the Environment Ministry. Except the Trade Ministry is unhappy with all the strict regulations and unrest is brewing.
Who is the windup girl and what does she have to do with everything? Emiko is a genetically modified person. She is so modified that the Thai’s don’t believe windups are even human. The Japanese population is so small they don’t have enough people so windups were created to fill jobs. Emiko was owned by a wealthy Japanese businessman. She was created and trained to Japanese ideals of beauty and so she has pores so small she overheats because she can’t sweat to keep cool. She has been bred for obedience, and to move with a kind of stutter-stop motion which is why her kind are called windups.
In Thailand, windups are illegal. But her wealthy owner had all the papers and paid all the fees and made all the bribes to bring her into the country while he did business there. She acted as his interpreter, accountant, servant and sex toy. But when he is ready to return to Japan, he decides the cost to take Emiko back with him is more than it would cost to just get a new windup. So he abandons her. Emiko ends up in a brothel where the owner has decided her novelty is worth all the bribes he has to pay to the Environment Ministry to keep them from “mulching” her.
Emiko is brutalized daily and wondering why she doesn’t kill herself when Anderson Lake discovers her and takes a liking to her. From him she learns that there is a colony of “New People” as the Japanese call them, somewhere north, living in the jungle but living as free people. It is Emiko’s desire to go north and have a life that belongs only to her upon which the book turns.
In the whole scheme of things, Emiko is a nobody. She is the least important person in the entire story. She has no rights and is essentially a sex slave in perpetual danger of being killed. But yet she becomes the match that lights the fuse that causes the explosion. And she doesn’t even know it.
It’s a great story with heroes in unlikely places and surprise alliances and betrayals. All set in a future world that imagines the worst possible outcome for GMO seeds, biological warfare, and the increasingly all too real genetic manipulations we can make with human and animal genes (Scientists use stem cells to create human/pig chimera embryos). It isn’t a complete downer though, we are left in the end with the image of Buddhist monks escaping silently through the jungle carrying packs of unmodified seeds on their backs.