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The Windup Girl
Paolo Bacigalupi
Night Shade hardcover $24.95

review by Jonathan McCalmont

In my recent review of Lauren Beukes' Moxyland, I made two broad and sweeping generalisations about the history of cyberpunk:

Firstly, I claimed that since the inception of the movement in the 1980s, cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk authors have worked hard at disconnecting cyberpunk's tropes from their native habitat of decaying American cities in order to project them against a the far more colourful backdrop of the new economies of the global south. This trend has given us not only Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Pashazade, but also books like Ian McDonald's River Of Gods, and Brasyl.

Secondly, I suggested moving beyond an understanding of cyberpunk as technologised noir, the kind of simple science fictionalisation of the hardboiled crime genre displayed by films such as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), and Mamoru Oshii's Ghost In The Shell (1989). I also suggested moving beyond a vision of cyberpunk as a form of American end-of-empire angst expressed as the kind of post-apocalyptic literary millenarianism displayed in works such as Bruce Sterling's Distraction, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, and Rudy Rucker's Postsingular.

A better way of looking at cyberpunk is as a literature of contemporary class alienation. Cyberpunk is a literary form that is all about expressing a sense of disillusionment with the existing class structure. Disillusionment with the role members of the middle class were expected to fill in western society, disillusionment with the way that society encourages individualism and self-expression only to demand conformity and obedience in the same breath. A disillusionment that's expressed in Ashraf al-Mansur's denial of his noble origins in Grimwood's Arabesk series, in Y.T.'s contempt for her mother's government job in Snow Crash, in Beukes' sneering characterisation in Moxyland, and in Marcus Yallow's furious sense of bourgeois entitlement in Cory Doctorow's Little Brother.

Paolo Bacigalupi's first novel The Windup Girl does not merely fit with these generalisations, it embodies them. If the 1980s' cyberpunks were the anguished scream of an alienated middle class that no longer knew its place in society then The Windup Girl is the Wagnerian roar of an America that has lost its hegemonic place only to find itself having to deal with a resentful, dangerous and powerful global south. A global south made up of billions of people that are not white. People infected with diseases both political and biological, people with money to spend. People who are also pretty girls. Pretty, but dangerous... An ambivalence about America's racial and political 'others' runs throughout The Windup Girl like a vicious riptide, carrying away characters, events and, eventually, entire cities. The Windup Girl may very well be set in Thailand, but it is very much a novel that is all about America even if it is also about half a dozen other things.

Much is made of the opening to William Gibson's Neuromancer: "The sky above the post was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel." Its laconic lyricism is reminiscent of Chandler, but its technological references made it new, different, and alien. The opening passage to The Windup Girl is just as evocative even though that power lies not in its jarring novelty but in its suffocating familiarity. It introduces us to a white man named Anderson Lake. A white man standing in a Thai marketplace trying to buy tropical fruit:

"The market soi bustles with Bangkok's morning shoppers. Mounds of durians fill the alley in reeking piles and water tubs splash with snakehead fish and red-fin plaa. Overhead, palm-oil polymer tarps sag under the blast furnace heat of the tropic sun, shading the market with hand-painted images of clipper ship trading companies and the face of the revered Child Queen. A man jostles past, holding vermillion-combed chickens high as they flap and squawk outrage on their way to slaughter, and women in brightly coloured pha sin bargain and smile with the vendors, driving down the price of pirated U-Tex rice and new-variant tomatoes" [page 1]

This is the kind of image of south-east Asia you will be able to find on a million poorly-written travel websites. It is off-the-shelf exoticism of the worst kind. It hits the various senses with the subtlety of a train derailment conjuring up the smell of the rotting fruit, the squawking of the chickens, the heat of the tropical sun, and the press of the other shoppers. Bacigalupi hits us with the colour red: the vermillion combs, the red-finned plaa and - in case we missed it - the brightly coloured pha sin. Red for heat, red for passion, red for blood...

He even italicises the Thai words just so that we know that they are not typos. In fact, they are not in English at all! These are foreign words. The mention of science fictional constructions such as 'U-Tex rice' and 'new-variant tomatoes' is supposed to be just as jarring as Gibson's dead TV channel but it isn't. It cannot be. The jarring 'otherness' of Bacigalupi's SF ideas are crushed beneath the weight of clich´┐Ż, of that familiar brand of otherness, the kind that appears on poorly-written travel websites: the kind that westerners invariably reach for whenever they want to write about the global south. Indeed, one of the central themes of The Windup Girl is the way in which America has started to see the global south.

If you peruse the output of America's political think-tanks you will find the emergence of a strange brand of apocalyptic literature. In addition to the easily-summoned demons of WMD and terrorism, political futurists have now added viral outbreaks, feral cities, and mass domestic unrest to the list of things the American military needs to plan for. Scarred by their experience as an occupying power, America's political class increasingly sees itself as facing a future in which they will have to deal with a dangerous global south.

The Obama administration's insistence that the Pakistani government deal with the apparently lawless federally administered tribal areas was underpinned by a political narrative that presented these lands as war zones that might suddenly expand and engulf the rest of the country. So while Pakistanis in Lahore went about their daily lives, American politicians warned that they were mere hours from a descent into barbarism. Similarly, when an earthquake hit Haiti, the western media were swift to imagine Port-au-Prince as a seething cauldron of violence and looting, in a society regressed to a feral state.

Bacigalupi's Thailand is not the Thailand you might recognise from the works of Thai filmmakers such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Wisit Sasanatieng. It is not a land of awkward smiles and gentle singing but a horrific dystopia that seems to distil the many negative stereotypes the west now circulates about the global south. Bacigalupi's Thailand is endemically corrupt and massively over-unionised, its seemingly archaic working practices defended by a caste of brutally nationalistic white shirted civil servants with military ranks. It is also a society shot through with racism:

"Jaidee has a certain respect for the Chaozhou Chinese. Their factories are large and well-run. They have generations rooted in the kingdom, and they are intensely loyal to her majesty the Child Queen. They are utterly unlike the pathetic Chinese refugees who have flooded in from Malaya, fleeing to his country in hopes of succour after they alienated the natives of their own. If the Malayan Chinese had been half as clever as the Chaozhou, they would have converted to Islam generations ago, and woven themselves fully into the tapestry of that society [...] The Chaozhou are smart, where the Malayan Chinese are stupid." [page 117]

And superstition:
"It will take opium and bribes and a renegotiation of their power contract before the megadonts once again make their shuffling revolutions around the spindle cranks. Another red item for the balance sheets. And it doesn't even include 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." [page 23]

Thailand is presented as a country infected by disease both political and biological. If the streets are not submerged by a rising tide of blood then they will be swept clean by the endless torrent of lethally infectious diseases flowing from the cramped slums and alleyways of Bangkok. Bacigalupi's Thailand is nothing short of a neoconservative dystopia - a nightmare vision of the future of the global south, a global south that America will have to deal with.

In this respect, The Windup Girl neatly follows the recent trend of post-cyberpunk authors exporting the failing American cityscapes of cyberpunk's first wave to the developing world. But at the same time, Bacigalupi's treatment seems overtly negative and grotesque compared to those of most works of post-cyberpunk. Indeed, while Gibson et al were happy to depict America's future cities as huge graveyards of wasted possibility, they were also quick to stress the fact that in between the deep shadows and the old factories, there were pools of light. Cyberpunk was chiefly about class alienation, but it was also about aspiration.

The cyberpunks were not victims; they were Mary Sues living the dreams of their creators. Dreams of a life lived by your wits and outside the class system. Cyberpunk's dystopias were always inflected with the sentiment that while life in the Sprawl may well be ugly brutish and short, it is also desperately and impossibly cool. Post-cyberpunk authors have, by and large, followed this Gibsonian pattern by making their developing worlds seem culturally vibrant as well as brutal and dangerous. Indeed, McDonald's novels are headily atmospheric odes to the vibrancy of Indian and Brazilian culture while Grimwood's Arabesk novels make it clear that the Ottoman empire is still very much a global player. This gem of hope is denied to the citizens of Bacigalupi's Thailand. But, while The Windup Girl refuses to be aspirational, it does offer explanation and understanding.

The Windup Girl takes place in the same world as Bacigalupi's short stories The Calorie Man (2005), and Yellow Card Man (2006). It is a world that is still reeling from a great energy slump. A slump brought about by peak oil, climate change and the attempt by American multinationals to corner the agriculture business by unleashing terrible plagues and sterile seeds meaning that humanity now finds itself in a permanent arms race with nature. Every year the diseases mutate and the genetic engineers have to keep reworking their designs in order to keep the teeming masses of humanity fed.

It is a world in which every last calorie counts. Where other south-east Asian nations have been wiped out by famine or descended into chaos, Thailand has managed to keep its head above the waves thanks to some canny investment in genetic engineering, and willingness by the government to throw all its weight into environmental protection but the situation remains dangerously unstable. An instability neatly manifested by the government's expensive reliance upon foreign technology and a religious devotion to keep Bangkok from disappearing beneath the waves of the rising sea:

"At Thanon Na Phralan, Jaidee takes his hands off the handlebars to wai to the City Pillar Shrine as he passes, whispering a prayer for the safety of the spiritual heart of Bangkok. It is the place where King Rama XII first announced that they would not abandon the city to the rising seas. Now, the sound of monks chanting for the city's survival filters out onto the street, filling Jaidee with a sense of peace. He raises his hands to his forehead three times, one of a river of other riders who all do the same." [page 118]

It soon becomes clear that, while The Windup Girl follows multiple characters, it is dominated by the viewpoint of one in particular: Anderson Lake, an American who works for an evil multinational corporation, and who would be trampled to death by genetically-engineered elephants if the Thai government ever found out who his true employers were. Bacigalupi makes us hate Thailand only to then give us enough information to work out that, actually, the only reason why Thailand has not succumbed to the pressures of the world is precisely because it is unionised, because it has a strong interventionist government, because it polices its borders and because it distrusts outsiders who could be carrying all kinds of diseases with them.

The Thai are not backward savages transgressing liberal values out of ignorance, they are brilliantly pragmatic and they are alive. We cannot like Bacigalupi's Thailand but we can, at least, respect it. The ambivalence that Bacigalupi carefully nurtures within his readers is a reflection of the ambivalence felt by his viewpoint character: Lake hates Thailand and yet here he is. Like the characters sitting in that bar at the opening of Neuromancer, he cannot stay away.

This ambivalence about the non-western world in general, and the global south in particular, is not only central to the post-cyberpunk genre, it is also increasingly central to the American body politic. The Windup Girl is nothing less than an examination of the many moral dilemmas presented by America's engagement with the wider world and the belief that, as unpleasant as the world may be, it is still America's job to save it. This complex combination of attraction and repulsion is brilliantly explored through Lake's relationship with the windup girl herself.

The windup girl is a creation very similar to the bio-mechanical organisms that haunt the pages of Bacigalupi's brilliant short fiction collection Pump Six And Other Stories (2008). A collision of genetic engineering and cybernetic tampering, the windup girl is a 'new person'. A type of person who is constructed to fit an environment she has been completely disconnected from:

"Warm beers sit and sweat wet slick rings, as slick as girls and men, as slick as her skin when she oils it to shine, to be soft like butter when a man touches her. As soft as skin can be, and perhaps more so, because even if her physical movements are all stutter-stop flash-bulb strange, her skin is more than perfect. Even with her augmented vision she barely spies the pores of her flesh. So small. So delicate. So optimal. But made for Nippon and a rich man's climate control, not for here. Here she is too hot and sweats too little." [page 35]

Emiko conforms perfectly to the traditional image of Japanese beauty. She is the little china doll, so beautiful, so fragile, so exotic. Her weird stutter-stop motions are utterly alien but they are not monstrous. They are stylised, like the hobbled walking and tiny feet of Japanese women in films set in Japan's feudal era. Much like the Thai marketplace, she is an 'other' that is instantly recognisable to the foreign eye. She is just other enough to be exotic without seeming actively inhuman.

When Lake first encounters her, the meeting is electric. His attraction to her is as tangible as her desire to submit to him, but his repulsion at her new person heritage and his wariness keep the pair apart and so they orbit each other like tide-locked moons - him asserting his authority, her challenging it, and provoking him to assert himself more. Denying him what he wants even though he does not yet realise that he wants it. This stormy encounter is not only a wonderful exploration of the new person psychology; it is a perfect encapsulation of American capitalism's attitude to the world outside America: It is terrified by it. It is disgusted by it. And yet it really, really wants to fuck it.

Of course, Emiko is a complex literary creation. She is not merely Asian; she is also representative of a humanity that risks becoming increasingly ill-suited for life on a planet undergoing brutal climate change. Her internal struggle to break free from the chains of genetics and conditioning is representative of the developing world's struggle between the desire for national pride and independence and the advantages of being exploited by the west. In fact, the more you read this book, the more you come to realise that the characters are merely signposts for a series of intellectual battles taking place in the book's cluttered subtext.

Other plot strands include a war between the ministries of trade and environment that symbolises the political challenged caused by climate change, an ageing gene-hacker and his trans-gendered concubine who represent a humanity freed from the diktats of the natural and a double-dealing civil servant who argues with the ghost of her own boss in a way that symbolises the personal struggle we all face between doing what is easy for us and what is good for society.

Practically every aspect of The Windup Girl can be seen as a manifestation of huge social and ideological conflicts that will shape the world for years to come. But while this makes for an astonishing density of ideas, it also makes for a profoundly inhuman book. Indeed, stripped of Gibsonian aspirationalism, The Windup Girl is a bleak novel filled with profoundly unsympathetic characters living lives of perpetual misery and danger. These characters have colour and are sometimes exquisitely drawn but it is all but impossible to care what happens to them as they are never more than intellectual cyphers - literary symbols that serve a function in the grand equation of the book's thematic drift, but which are utterly meaningless on their own.

Indeed, while The Windup Girl has a beginning, middle, and an end, there is no real dramatic reason for it beginning or ending where it does. The book could just as easily have begun with Lake sneaking into the country and trying to put the factory he uses as cover into order. Similarly, the book could have dealt with Lake's replacement trying to find an accommodation with the existing regime. It is a novel that has moments of visceral unpleasantness and even some tension and action, but with very little dramatic energy at all.

As someone reviewing the novel, this lack of humanity places me in a difficult position. I admire Bacigalupi's capacity for metaphorical play and I really like the fact that he is more politically engaged and subtle than practically any contemporary writer of science fiction. I love some of the verbal jousts and confrontations that see vast intellectual infrastructures battling for dominance through argument, rhetoric and insult. I even think that his refusal to be aspirational marks an important milestone in the evolution of post-cyberpunk.

There is a lot that I like about this novel but at the same time I cannot overlook its real and pressing technical and conceptual problems. I cannot ignore the fact that Bacigalupi clearly struggles to manage a character-arc over the length of an entire novel. I cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that the novel has no over-arching plot to speak of. I cannot ignore the fact that the book has so many half-formed and unstructured ideas in it that none of them ever develops into anything approaching a coherent argument.

Pump Six And Other Stories proves that Bacigalupi has an extraordinary amount of skill when it comes to writing short fiction, but as much as I like the ideas in The Windup Girl, I cannot wholeheartedly recommend it. Bacigalupi has a great work of science fiction in him... but this is simply not it.

The Windup Girl



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