A book review: The Wind-Up Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

I’m a firm believer in the power of fiction and film and their ability to shape the way we see the world around us now, as well as the possibilities for our future. I’ve mentioned before my love of late 80s/ early 90s kids films and TV shows about the environment (Captain Planet! Fern Gully! Widget the World Watcher!) and I do wonder if they have in some way had an impact on the person I’ve become. Plus, I still watch Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind at least once a year…

I’ve read some excellent environmental/dystopian fiction over the last few years as well, and I thought that it might be interesting to share some reviews and recommendations with you guys. Some of them have absolutely blown me away with their detail and with their uncanny similarities to the path we seem to be heading down, and one of those is The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.

The Wind-Up Girl is set in Thailand in the 23rd century. It’s the future, but not the one we’ve hoped for. ‘Calorie companies’, which are clearly representative of Big Ag monoliths such as Monsanto and Du Pont have undertaken a huge range of genetic modifications that have caused the decimation of food supplies and forests. Climate change has led to dramatic sea level rises, with Bangkok protected by huge levees and pumps – the only thing preventing the entire city being flooded. With no more petroleum and limited supplies of other fossil fuels, transport other than walking or cycling is largely reserved for the wealthy, and the energy that powers daily life is largely methane based (from compacted trash), with some input from genetically modified elephants, ‘megodonts’ who tighten large, high-power springs. As I say, it’s not the future we’ve hoped for.

The novel follows five main characters; Anderson Lake, an expat calorie company representative from Des Moines under cover as a manufacturer of the high powered springs, while seeking out a hidden Thai seedbank; Emiko, a wind-up girl from Japan, a genetically modified ‘New Person’ bred to serve, and routinely abused by her masters; Hock Seng, an ageing former merchant and refugee from a Malaysia destroyed by ‘Green Headband’ militants; and two officers of the Environment Ministry, an organisation that ostensibly protects Thailand from the international calorie companies, but which has become hopelessly corrupt. The world that they inhabit is hot, sweaty and fraught with danger. Starvation is a real risk through the production of sterile crops that are susceptible to ‘genehack’ disease. Crop disease can easily spread to humans, and then from person to person, sweeping across entire countries in plagues. Life in the 23rd century, is connected to some very tenuous threads.

I don’t want to tell you the detail of the story because I want you to read it! What I will tell you though is that Bacigalupi does an incredible job of seamlessly weaving a strong and often poignant narrative with concerns for our environmental future, easily avoiding the potential pitfall of proselytising to his readers. As it is, the story, as well as the scene, simply places a mirror to our current world and our current values and it shocks us. As well it should.

I hope you get the chance to read this. In the meantime, does anyone have any other recommendations for good fiction about the environment/ climate change/ food etc? I finished Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy recently and loved it, so this is definitely an area I’d like to read more in.


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