Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (4.5/5)

The back says: Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen's calorie representative in Thailand. Under cover as a factory manager, he combs Bangkok's street markets in search of foodstuffs long thought to be extinct. There he meets the windup girl - the beautiful and enigmatic Emiko - now abandoned to the slums. She is one of the New People, bred to suit the whims of the rich. Engineered as slaves, soldiers and toys, they are the new underclass in a chilling near future where oil has run out, calorie companies dominate nations and bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.

And as Lake becomes increasingly obsessed with Emiko, conspiracies breed in the heat and political tensions threaten to spiral out of control. Businessmen and ministry officials, wealthy foreigners and landless refugees all have their own agendas. But no one anticipates the devastating influence of the Windup Girl.

I say: Every now and then I come across a book that amazes me so much that I don’t really know how to even begin a review about it, and this is one of those books.  There was just so much that happened in the 500+ pages that I’m finding it near impossible to distil them down to a few hundred words.

There are just so many different plots intertwined, I’m going to just refer to Wiki.

First of all, I think that the title is a bit misleading; it denotes that Emiko is at the centre of all things, when I don’t really think that she is. It’s a good while before she even becomes relevant, and when she does, it’s in such a way that although she is at the centre of things, she functions more as a catalyst.

But before I get too negative, Bacigalupi has managed to create a most excellent post-apocalyptic world, and it was nice to read one that wasn’t situated in the west. I don’t read much Asian literature, so it was fascinating to take part of this new world that still had a somewhat strong connection to the “old” traditions. In this new world scientists manufacture food, as well as diseases that are used in warfare. They’ve also bred New People used as slaves for the rich – also known as Windup Girls due to the way that they move – which are illegal in Thailand. There are so many details put into this world, some of which went over my head, that it’s near impossible to account for them all.

I was impressed and in utter awe at the realistic portrayal of the ever scorching Bangkok.

Each chapter is narrated by a different person, which is one of the reasons why I found everything so confusing in the beginning; there are just so many people involved. In a way, I wish that Bacigalupi would have kept the narrators to three or four of the key players, although I can understand why he chose not to – this way he covers every angle, but somewhat at the expense of the flow. There were so many names mentioned that I didn’t know if they’d be relevant, and since I’m not accustomed to Thai names, I kept getting them all mixed up.

However, there rarely seemed to be a quiet moment and we were whirled across the city of Bangkok at a oftentimes great speed. If we had only followed one narrator, this wouldn’t have been a problem, and as soon as I found out how they all connected it stopped being one. It was thrilling at times, and I had a hard time putting this down – even just to go to the bathroom – it was that exciting.

Looking back at the characters I can now see that a lot of them were rather one-dimensional and only present to serve one specific need, only to later be discarded. Nevertheless, this wasn’t something I paid too much attention to while reading. Yes, the relationship between Emiko and Lake was rather cliché, especially as soon as he told her that there was a colony of her kind living up north and she was determined to go. But there was just so much going on that I didn’t have time to reflect too hard on that.

I just wanted to know what was going to happen next.

Initially I wanted to give this a full 5/5, but the more I let it marinate in my brain, the more little annoyances I stumbled upon. There was a lot of technical/biological jargon that was too advanced for me (I don’t even know if any of it was plausible, so I merely read and agreed), but on the other hand there were a lot of Thai words and expressions that added a sense of authenticity to the novel. In the end I have decided to stay at 4.5/5 because it’s a basically a great story, well told but with a slightly less satisfactory execution.

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