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Literature / The Windup Girl

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The Windup Girl is a 2009 Bio Punk science fiction novel by Paolo Bacigalupi (pronounced BA-chi-ga-LOO-pi). It won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for 2009.

The events of the novel take place in 23rd century Thailand. Global Warming has raised the ocean levels to the point where pumps work continuously to keep Bangkok above water. Fossil fuels have all but been exhausted; the main sources of portable energy are hand-wound "kink-springs". Megacorps dominate the world through biotechnology — the crops they sell are engineered to be resistant to diseases both natural and man-made, but they're also sterile so their customers become reliant, with some countries like India and Burma run as virtual puppet states for the "calorie companies". Reckless genetic engineering has led to the destruction of the natural ecosystem. The few plants and animals which have been modified to survive are constantly under threat from the latest viral mutations, as is the entire human race.

Throughout the turmoil, Thailand has managed to stay relatively stable by firmly controlling its borders and maintaining a seed bank safe from the Megacorps' "calorie men". However a power struggle within the Thai government threatens to change all that.

This work provides examples of:

  • A God Am I: Gibbons, who helped create many of the genetically engineered beings, often compares himself to God.
    “I want to shake you sometimes. If you would just let me, I could be your god and shape you to the Eden that beckons us.”
    “I’m Buddhist.”
    “And we all know windups have no souls.” Gibbons grins. “No rebirth for them. They will have to find their own gods to protect them. Their own gods to pray for their dead.” His grin widens. “Perhaps I will be that one, and your windup children will pray to me for salvation.”
  • Ambiguous Situation: Hock Seng learns that Kanya and her loyal white shirts are going to destroy the seawalls around Bangkok and has only a limited amount of time to evacuate. He nearly makes a beeline for the anchor pads in the hopes of making a quick getaway, but decides to go back for Mai first, even though he knows he might not have time to escape if he does that. The story cuts to the epilogue immediately afterwards, leaving their survival uncertain.
  • Anti-Hero: Every single point-of-view character.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: Kink-spring technology.
  • Apocalypse How: On the human side, at some point in the past they were definitely experiencing a Class 2 ("Civilization Extinction"), due to people having to scavenge empty urban areas to survive. When the story takes place, it has been reduced to Class 1 ("Human Die-Back"), however how humanity will progress from here is left ambiguous. On a world-wide ecological level, this is definitely a Class 4 ("Biosphere Extinction"), due to the total ruination of thousands of ecosystems and severely reduced biodiversity.
  • Artistic License – Linguistics: To say the Thai in this book is like something out of Babelfish might perhaps be too kind. One Thai reviewer noticed half a dozen language errors on the first page alone, and that's before we get into the names...
  • Ass Shove: With a champagne bottle. The reason why Emiko finally cuts loose...
  • Asskicking Leads to Leadership: Jaidee was a muay thai fighter before he became a White Shirt, and he makes sure to always take the lead in fighting, rather than leave it to his subordinates.
  • Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop: Corruption is the norm in the Environment Ministry, and even the loyal men of Captain Jaidee grumble over how he doesn't take any 'gifts of goodwill', because they're losing face in front of their wealthier colleagues.
  • Beast of Battle: War megodonts (giant genetically-engineered War Elephants) have carbon fibre armour, blades attached to their tusks and machine-gun cages on their backs.
  • Becoming the Mask: Kanya is The Mole planted by Akkarat in the Environment Ministry. She swore to do as much damage as she could to the Ministry after they burned down her childhood village to destroy a possible biological contamination. But she's been embedded for so long that she's grown loyal to Jaidee, and eventually turns against Akkarat at the end of the novel.
  • Big Applesauce: Averted. The center of power for the agricultural megacorps is Des Moines, Iowa. There's mention of sea levels rising, which could account for New York (a coastal, mostly island city) not being a player.
  • Big, Fat Future: Definitely averted. Even in Thailand which is relatively well off foodwise, only the very wealthy, or foreigners on good terms with the calorie companies, put on weight.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Anderson dies of cibiscosis, and Kanya massacres his replacement and her team as they pick up their promised seed samples, so AgriGen never gets the new material to work with. This slaughter doesn't endear Thailand to the Westerners, so they don't replace their failing pumps, and the city of Bangkok drowns. Those who survived the coup and flood are now refuges. However, the seeds are not lost as the preservers move them to another secret vault, and Gibbons promises to remove the Windups' limitations, promising a far brighter future for the artificial race and possibly for the planet as a whole — his interventions seem to have global influence.
  • Chekhov's Gun: In a small paragraph early on, it mentioned how Hock Seng has his hopes riding on the new kink-springs, which only have a 75% rate of working. So without its inventor's knowledge, he introduces pig DNA into the algae bath (in his culture, pigs are good luck). Later on in the story, this is likely the cause of the new plague outbreak once the baths are left to spoil. Anderson picks up his own infection when he has to crouch down near the rancid vats to retrieve something in a hidden compartment there.
  • Church Militant: The Grahamites are violently opposed to biotechnology and the corporations that do business in it.
  • Cool Car: By virtue of being the only car seen in the story. Akkarat's coal-diesel limousine is an obscene display of wealth and luxury in a world of depleted fossil fuels where most transport is powered by humans, animals, or wind.
  • Covert Group with Mundane Front: The megacorp that Anderson works for funds Yates unprofitable kink-spring factory just so they can have a window to a country where any Calorie Man is liable to be lynched. Unfortunately Yates thinks of himself as an inventor rather than a spy, and misses the fact that fruit and vegetables are appearing in Bangkok food markets that didn't exist before. Anderson fires Yates for this and takes over the factory himself, and it's implied he killed Yates when the latter took violent objection to losing control of his life's work.
  • Crapsack World: Oh, where to start? The planet is dominated by evil corporations who ruthlessly control governments and people alike, the very food humanity lives on is engineered to generate dependence on said corporations, terrible plagues haunt both humanity and vegetation (and some of them are implied to be man-made to enforce more dependence on plague-proof engineered crops), corruption is rampant at all levels, local areas are controlled by people who rape and kill for the hell of it, genetically engineered humans are treated as slaves, and the few people who try to do something about all of this are summarily executed.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: On a genetic scale. Cheshires are so much more effective than cats that their introduction brought about the end of Felis catus in a few generations. It's also heavily implied this is what would happen to humanity if New People weren't designed to be crippled and with a dog-like need to please. And then Gibbons promises to change that...
  • Definitely Just a Cold: Anderson is immune to most diseases, so ignores the Incurable Cough of Death which he puts down to injuries he got from being tortured earlier.
  • Designer Babies: The Windups, Emiko included. They were genetically engineered without the ability to reproduce, a lesson learned from the spread of the Cheshires. At the end of the novel, Gibbons tells Emiko he plans to change that.
  • Disney Owns This Trope: The disease-resistant grains shipped by calorie companies are sterile, so no-one can steal the "intellectual property" involved in developing them. This has the effect of making countries which buy them slaves to the Mega Corps. The conspirators are shocked when Anderson offers Thailand the grain before sterilisation as an Enemy Mine incentive.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Dog Fucker casually mentions raping and killing a minor character because she interrupted his free time.
  • Does Not Know His Own Strength: The civilian Windups are heavily trained and conditioned from childhood to prevent the usage of their superhuman speed, reflexes and strength. It reaches a point where the Windups don't realize that they have more than human abilities and can only activate them unconsciously or if something breaks their conditioning.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Emiko snaps when she realises her owner is never going to let her go, kills him with her bare hands, then runs into the room where she'd just been sexually abused and humiliated as per usual and kills the client and his bodyguards. The client happens to be the Somdet Chaopraya, the most powerful man in Thailand.
  • Dramatic Irony:
    • Anderson dismisses his coughing up blood as a side effect of the torture he went through at Akkarat's hands... even though the audience knows that he's been exposed to a new and deadly disease from the algae baths.
    • Akkarat boasts how he intends to see Pracha live out his days as a disgraced monk in the jungle. That turns out to be Akkarat's fate after losing Bangkok to the floodwaters.
  • Earth That Was. Anderson views an old picture of a Thai farmer showing a fat tourist his array of fruit and vegetables, and is furious over their total ignorance of their good fortune. In his world where most food crops have died out from plagues, pests or competition from genetically-engineered strains, such a stockpile of diverse calories would represent enormous wealth.
  • Even Evil Has Standards:
    • Trade Minister Akkarat isn't willing to hand over his country's seed bank to the calorie companies, as it's the only guarantee of his country's independence.
    • Everyone hates the Calorie Men, meaning Anderson is basically a secret agent posing as a Western businessmen to stop himself from being lynched. Even the Somdet Chaopraya makes no secret of his desire to have Anderson's head squashed under a megodont's foot.
    • When the Somdet Chaopraya is murdered all Thais no matter how villainous are outraged by this attack on royalty.
  • Evil Chancellor: The Somdet Chaopraya, who rules as regent as Thai's queen is still a child. While the young queen is presented as well-meaning—offering sanctuary to the Yellow Card refugees and supporting Jaidee's efforts—the Somdet Chaopraya is in alliance with Trade Minister Akkarat who plans to usurp the Environment Ministry's power in a Civil War, and arranges for Jaidee to be forced into resigning to further this scheme.
  • Evil Genius: The wheelchair-bound Gi Bu Sen AKA Gibbons, the finest generipper in the world, who faked his death and went to work for the Thai government—partly because they have a full seedbank to play with, but mainly because he gets to match wits with all his former colleagues in the calorie companies. He's regarded as a Necessary Evil by the Thais who don't bother hiding their distaste for one of the men who helped bring about the current Crapsack World. Gibson in turn gleefully matches them in debate.
  • Fan Disservice: Emiko is a "performer" in a brothel where she is publicly raped by a non-genetically-engineered woman nightly for the amusement of the patrons. What makes it worse is that her body is literally programmed to respond positively to sexual stimulus, so she doesn't even have a choice about enjoying it or not, only feeling shame and disgust after the fact. The final club scene heavily implies that audience participation is a regular feature of her act.
  • Flechette Storm: Spring-guns fire razor sharp discs, and eventually we see machine-gun versions.
  • Flooded Future World: This is a major background element and plot point. The novel takes place in 23rd century Bangkok, which is actually below sea level after Global Warming has taken its toll and only survives thanks to enormous sea-walls and powerful pumps that work throughout the monsoon season.
  • Fingore: Akkarat has Anderson tortured by breaking his fingers.
  • For the Evulz: Dog Fucker is the trope personified.
  • The Fundamentalist: The Grahamite Church. The 'green headbands' in Malaysia. The Environment Ministry ('white shirts') in their heydey.
  • Ghostly Goals: The Thais are haunted by the spirits of the dead (phii) who can't resurrect as they don't deserve the Crapsack World they'd be reborn into. After Jaidee is killed by the Trade Ministry, a guilt-ridden Kanya finds herself being followed around by his phii in full Deadpan Snarker mode.
  • Gorgeous Gaijin: Inverted as blonde-haired, blue-eyed Anderson is regarded as ugly by Thai standards.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: None of the characters can really be called heroes. The "good guys" act with questionable methods, and their motives are often just as self-serving as the "bad guys"'. Emiko is the most sympathetic of the bunch, probably as she gets very little chance to act on her own accord. Just to drive the point home: even though the reader is told that Gi Bu Sen is pure evil, and in the few scenes he gets it's quite clear he has a significant A God Am I complex, he is still arguably the most heroic character after Jaidee.
  • Have You Told Anyone Else?: Averted. When 13-year old Mai discovers two sick workers, Hock Seng considers killing all three to prevent the white shirts burning down the factory to stop a pandemic. He packs them off to the hospital instead.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Kanya becomes The Mole after her village was burnt by the White Shirts; she ends up doing the same thing to contain the pandemic.
  • How the Mighty Have Fallen:
    • Emiko, the title character, was a pampered Sex Slave & Office Lady for a Japanese businessman who abandoned her in Thailand because he'd rather update to a new model than spend the money to ship her home. She now spends every night being raped and humiliated for the amusement of brothel patrons, in a climate that's too hot for her genetically-engineered body.
    • Hock Seng was once a wealthy ship merchant in Malaysia before a fundamentalist uprising led to the destruction of his business empire and the death of every member of his clan.
  • Ideal Illness Immunity: Windups are immune to all diseases, so Emiko takes care of the dying Anderson with no ill effects and at the end of the story, Emiko thrives in the flooded Bangkok and can keep from overheating by drinking and swimming in the dirty water.
  • I Have Your Wife: Jaidee's wife is kidnapped and a photograph of her Bound and Gagged is slipped under the door of General Pracha. Jaidee is forced to make a false confession and resign in a humiliating public ceremony in the hope that she'll be released unharmed. She isn't.
  • Interservice Rivalry: General Pracha (in charge of the Environment Ministry) and Trade Minister Akkarat loathe each other, and are engaged in a constant battle for supremacy which eventually ends in open war.
  • It's All Junk: Kanya realizing this about Bangkok itself is what leads her to destroy the seawall.
  • Jeanne d'Archétype: Kanya becomes this by the end of the book, including the Hearing Voices and becoming a nationalist icon.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Gibbons points out it would be better if humanity put aside their prejudice against windups and be genetailored as a whole to resist the diseases now plaguing the world.
  • Karma Houdini: Dog Fucker, the character the audience arguably most wants to die horribly, doesn't. The Dung Lord gets the spring blueprints, too. However, while it's likely that the two of them get away without any consequences, the blueprints that the Dung Lord has are of the flawed prototype and Dog Fucker stole them from the factory that was contaminated with the new plague. Considering how long it took for the victims to show symptoms, both of them might be dying offscreen.
  • Kill It with Fire: Burning villages and great swathes of jungle is often the only way the white shirts can stop pandemics and pests. The Grahamites are notorious for burning the occasional genetically-engineered crop as well.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Inverted with Captain Jaidee; he knows he's fighting a futile battle against corruption and the illegal importation of genetically-engineered food, but enjoys sticking it to powerful people too much to stop.
  • MegaCorp: Lots of them. AgriGen, PurCal, U-Tex, Total Nutrient Holdings.
  • The Mole: Akkarat's people recruited Kanya to infiltrate the Environment Ministry after her village was torched by General Pracha. Kanya realises too late that Akkarat is no less corrupt and ruthless.
  • Morality Pet: Emiko for Anderson, Mai for Hock Seng, and Kip for Gibson.
  • No Blood for Phlebotinum: Thailand has fought its neighbours for coal resources.
  • No Challenge Equals No Satisfaction: Gibbons appears to have defected purely because he got bored working for the all-mighty calorie corporations, and decided to bet himself on foiling their efforts for kicks.
  • Odd Couple: Ever-cheerful Cowboy Cop Captain Jaidee Rojjanasukchai and his Number Two, Emotionless Girl Lieutenant Kanya Chirathivat.
  • Post-Peak Oil: Kink-springs are needed for portable energy after petroleum supplies were exhausted, while less portable installations make use of animal power. A big deal is made of one character's ownership of an actual fossil fuel-burning car, the running which is so expensive as to make it the ultimate show of wealth.
  • Punk Punk: A mix of Biopunk, Springpunk, Musclepunk, Coalpunk and Dungpunk.
  • Properly Paranoid:
    • Hock Seng is a Yellow Card — a Chinese refugee from the fundamentalist-led genocide in Malaysia. He lives in a constant state of low-grade paranoia, waiting for the time when the Thai will find it similarly expedient to massacre the Yellow Cards or kick them across the border back to the Malay.
    • Emiko as well. A huge number of Thais want to kill any New Person on sight, partly because the Vietnamese used them as brutally effective soldiers. New People also lack legal rights. Outside of Anderson's apartment and the (abusive) club her only means of survival are running, or controlling her movements to disguise her origins.
  • Rescue Romance: Anderson falls for Emiko after he saves her from an attacker.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The calorie companies control of sterile grain is taken from the so-called "terminator seed".
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: The Dung Lord and Trade Minister Akkarat own limousines powered by coal-diesel engines, an unbelievable extravagance.
  • Sexbot: Emiko is a variation, created by genetic engineering rather than mechanical means. For instance her skin has less pores to make it smooth to the touch; unfortunately this means in Thailand she's constantly in danger of overheating.
  • Schizo Tech: Factory production lines driven by genetically-engineered animals, treadle-powered computers, elevators using human counterweights, coal-diesel tanks fighting alongside war-megodonts.
  • Shout-Out: The "Cheshires" in the story are explicitly named after the Cheshire Cat in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, due to their genetically-engineered Chameleon Camouflage.
  • Super-Powered Robot Meter Maids: Emiko. Turns out the 'geisha' windups are just as fast and strong as the military windups.
  • Tank Goodness: Coal-diesel powered tanks. Such a heavy, fuel-inefficient vehicle can only be justified for military use.
  • Trauma Conga Line:
    • Emiko is stranded, friendless and alone, in a country where her very existence is a capital crime, in a climate she is barely able to tolerate and subjected daily to extremely degrading sexual abuse. When she finally snaps and slaughters those responsible for her misery, a witchhunt is called to hunt her down like a rabid dog.
    • Hock Seng for all his long term planning just can't seem to catch a break in the final act.
  • The Unreveal:
    • Exactly what role Anderson played in Finland is never fully elaborated on.
    • What happened after Yates reached for the spring-gun.
    • Whether Dog Fucker tortured, raped and killed Doctor Chan as he claimed.
    • What happened with the super kinksprings after the Dung Lord got the blueprints.
  • The 'Verse: The Windup Girl is set in the same world as Bacigalupi's short stories "The Calorie Man" and "The Yellow Card Man" with references to both in the text.
  • Villain Protagonist: Any of them could be, depending on which of profiteering, piracy, or violent Nationalism you consider most evil.
  • Villain Ball: All over the place.
    • The calorie companies dominate the world market due to their genehacked crops and animals, but also end up wiping out most of the natural environment and creating viral mutations that could end up killing everyone on Earth.
    • Akkarat dumps Jaidee's mutilated corpse outside the Environment Ministry, which causes the White Shirts to rise against him.
    • Anderson introduces the Somdet Chaopraya to Emiko as a bribe, causing his death when Emiko kills him when his abuse finally gets too much for her.
    • Hock Seng embezzles Anderson's bribe money, leading to his equipment being held up, then burned, in customs. Hock Seng is forced to use the old infected vats, which end up incubating the disease that kills Anderson. Hock Seng, without permission or anyone else's knowledge, introduces pig DNA into the vats for good luck (pigs are good luck to his superstitions), which contaminates the mixture and likely began the cibiscosis outbreak.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Wind-ups and Cheshires (chameleon-like cats) are believed not to have souls, so it's perfectly acceptable to kill them. Only one Thai questions the morality of this, and wonders if his previous job killing cheshires hasn't led to his dead relatives being reincarnated as wind-ups in karmic punishment.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Hock Seng has the opportunity to make a beeline to the anchor pads and escape the city before Kanya and the white shirts destroy the seawall. He goes back for Mai instead, even though he knows there's no guarantee he'll have enough time to reach the pads afterward.
  • With My Hands Tied: Akkarat tries to shove a bound Jaidee off the roof of the Environment Ministry. As Jaidee's a former Muay Thai kickboxing champion this turns out to be a bad idea. Unfortunately Jaidee is gunned down by Akkarat's bodyguards before he can send Akkarat over the edge.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Averted by Emiko's former employer, who should have had his wind-up destroyed but set her free instead. Given what Emiko endures afterwards, this is a questionable act of mercy.
  • We Are Everywhere: When Anderson's partner looks like he's distancing himself, Anderson points out that while Akkarat may be the power in Thailand, the megacorporation he works for rules everywhere else.
  • World Half Empty: Ohhhh, yeah.
  • Zeppelins from Another World: There's no more petroleum, so international trade is conducted via clipper ships and dirigibles.