Science fiction about the environment can get preachy, so Paolo Bacigalupi's hard SF novel The Windup Girl is a welcome change. Set in Thailand's future, the book follows scientist spies hunting good genomes in a world ruined by GMO diseases.
In the tradition of politically-minded hard SF writers like Iain M. Banks and Ian McDonald, Bacigalupi follows the interconnected stories of several people caught up in great social shifts. In the case of The Windup Girl, they're all caught in the genome industry's web: We have a covert "calorie man" called Anderson who tries to sniff out uncontaminated genomes for a Monsanto-esque multinational called AgriGen; a "yellow card" Chinese refugee named Hock Seng who is trying to climb to the top of the energy-generator black market in Thailand; Environment Ministry shock troops Jaidee and Kanya, whose job is to protect Thailand from contaminated genomes, foreign imports, and dirty energy; and the mysterious whore Emiko, a genetically-engineered "windup" person abandoned by her former owner in Thailand, where GMO people are illegal.
We follow these characters through every eschelon of Thai society, from backroom meetings between government officials to backroom performances at the strip club where Emiko is fetishistically degraded every night. The action takes place in the weeks leading up to a clash between the Trade Ministry - who want to open Thailand up to business with AgriGen and other multinationals - and the Environment Ministry, which has fought to keep Thailand and its ultra-valuable seed bank isolated from other nations (and ecosystems). The globe is still recovering from a series of diseases that ravaged crops and humans alike, so exposure to foreign people and objects can be deadly. Companies like PurCal and AgriGen have cornered the market on disease-free strains of rice and wheat, selling to countries where "blister rust" and GMO beetles have reduced food supplies to dust.
Thailand's seed bank, a collection of heirloom seeds from long-extinct plant species, has allowed the country to remain independent from the multinationals. The Environment Ministry's "white shirts," led by Jaidee, have burned all the contaminated fields and even recruited shady foreign gene hackers to help synthesize new, disease-resistant crops. But now times are changing. The palace is starting to support Trade, and calorie men like Anderson are secretly offering them lucrative deals to share the seed bank in exchange for military and financial support.
As these major players jockey for genome power, we watch as they miss obvious ways they could make Thailand rich again through other means. Anderson the calorie man has a cover operation to hide his real identity: He runs a factory that is trying to develop extremely efficient kink springs, or green batteries that work like watch springs - wind them up, and as they slowly unwind they release enough energy to power cars, planes, or factories. Anderson thinks the factory is great cover because the new kink springs will never work, and he can churn these useless items out perpetually without drawing attention to himself. Meanwhile his assistant Hock Seng knows the kink springs can work, and that they will revolutionize energy technology. He has plans to steal the kink spring plans and sell them to a local organized crime group to get rich. Little does he know his boss doesn't give a crap about the kink springs, and little does his boss know that he's sitting on a goldmine far more valuable than an AgriGen contract with the Thai government.
As tensions mount, Trade takes violent retribution against Environment. Violence begins bubbling up on all sides. And somehow Anderson meets Emiko, beginning a strange affair with the windup that has an unexpected effect on the future of Thailand.
One of the strengths of The Windup Girl, other than its intriguing characters, is Bacigalupi's world building. You can practically taste this future Thailand he's built, especially when Anderson discovers a newly-engineered fruit in the marketplace and tries to figure out what genes went into its construction. We're given just enough background to understand the economic and environmental factors that created this world, but Bacigalupi doesn't bog us down in endless discussions of ecosystems and fuel consumption.
And there are several moments where the hard SF here merges deftly with a magical realism that compliments it nicely. Thailand is haunted by GMO cats called "cheshires," created as souped-up pets, whose fur is designed to merge chameolon-like into the background. This has made them unstoppable predators, and they've eaten every other creature in their niche. But at certain points, it almost seems as if these creatures are seeping through walls. Which isn't surprising when you consider that Jaidee's ghost is a major character, and that Emiko has been implausibly engineered to have jerky, mechanical movements like a windup doll.
Indeed, Emiko is as much a magical realist creation as Jaidee's ghost. Created in Japan as a secretary, where windups are legal, she is impossibly beautiful and obedient due to a chunk of dog genes in her DNA. Her pores have been made miniscule to give her smooth skin, which means she overheats easily. And her jerky "stutter stop" movements, which mark her as GMO to everyone who beholds her, are pure genomic fantasy. She is half-doll, half-frankenwhore - a fabulation who nevertheless seems perfectly suited to a story set in a country where ghosts play a role in national politics.
While Bacigalupi's blending of hard science and magic realism works beautifully, the novel occasionally sags under its own weight. At a certain point, the subplots feel like tagents that needed cutting. And many of the military action sequences are drawn out far too long: We feel like we're watching an endless battle in slow-motion, which destroys the sense of urgency at the heart of this novel. But this is Bacigalupi's first published novel, and a lot of these problems feel like the narrative thoat-clearing of somebody whose next work will be more polished and well-paced.
Like all science fiction, The Windup Girl is obviously about the geopolitics of the present, where Monsanto tries to supplant local seedstocks with its own, and many governments teeter between the politics of isolationism and global capital. And yet Bacigalupi never slides into moralism or judgement. All his characters have their flaws and heroic moments. Nobody is clean, and there are no heroes who want to save the environment or bad guys who want to destroy it. Ultimately that's what makes this debut novel so exciting. It's rare to find a writer who can create such well-shaded characters while also building a weird new future world.
Image from the cover of The Windup Girl, by Raphael Lacoste.