Home > Book Reviews > Book Review – The Windup Girl and Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi

Book Review – The Windup Girl and Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi’s debut novel The Windup Girl has won just about everything a science fiction novel can win, including the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell Award. This is a book, then, that came insanely hyped by the time of the recent Orbit edition. Does it live up to that hype? In a word, yes. This is epic science fiction that reminded this reader of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. I’m not sure if I’m quite prepared to declare it one of the best science fiction works of all time, but it’d easily be in my top ten science fiction novels of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Believe the hype.

The Windup Girl features a near(ish) future crippled by its energy needs. The world’s oil is gone, and with it mains electricity and international aeroplane travel. So it’s back to dirigibles, rickshaws and the sweat of one’s brow. There are even genetically engineered creatures called megodonts which are harnessed for their strength. Global warming also appears to have wrought havoc on ecosystems worldwide, not to mention the problem of rising sea levels which is keenly felt in Bangkok, where the action takes place.  And then there’s the generippers and man-made plagues.  This isn’t a future you’d want to live in.

Bacigalupi uses multiple character viewpoints to weave a story around a future Bangkok both literally and metaphorically on the edge of an abyss. Anderson Lake is a ‘Calorie Man’; an employee of the AgriGen company. AgriGen and similar companies hold the world in thrall through their control of genetically-enhanced foodstuffs. Despite the collapse of the US (and apparently many other nations), the North Americans still hold sway to some extent. Lake owns a ‘kink-spring’ factory in Bangkok, which is run by a Chinese ‘yellow card’, Hock Seng, who is a wily old survivor of the slaughter of his people at the hands of the ‘Green Headbands.’ Lake and Hock Seng are in fact working at cross purposes, as we discover early on, and neither are precisely what they claim to be.

The novel’s other main characters are Emiko, a Japanese ‘windup girl’, and Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, a ‘white shirt’ intent on protecting the Thai Kingdom from illegal (and dangerous) trade. Emiko is a genetically engineered human built for pleasure and subservience. Having fallen on hard times, she aims to gain passage to the land where windup creations such as herself live freely, while enduring all-too-frequent bouts of cruel debauchery at the hands of her proprietor’s clients. Meanwhile, Jaidee’s brazen attacks on his enemy, Trade, soon bring trouble to his family.

For me, the pleasure of reading The Windup Girl came mainly in the first half of the novel. Bacigalupi’s world-building is exquisite. Not only does he appear to have a handle on Thai custom and (future) history, but his novel is chock-full of ‘sense of wonder’ SF spectacle. Crumbling Expansion towers, the calorie men and their nefarious manipulations, the yellow cards and the atrocities that have brought them to Bangkok, the ‘ngaw’ fruit and its shady inventor Gi-Bu-Sen: description of these elements created, in me, a reading nirvana I haven’t felt reading SF for many, many years. That’s about all  a SF novel can ever hope to do, and The Windup Girl does it extremely well.

It was because I enjoyed the first half so much that I was slightly disappointed with the second half. I didn’t much like the way the plot spun into big-picture conflict toward the end, and I felt the central conceit of the unexpected killer to be a little weak. For such a long novel, the ending seems rushed. But this is still an exceptional novel featuring one of the best first chapters in the history of science fiction. I dare you to read it and claim otherwise.

Fresh from finishing Bacigalupi’s debut novel, I went out and bought myself a copy of his debut collection, Pump Six and Other Stories. Two of these stories, ‘The Calorie Man’ and ‘Yellow Card Man’, actually provide backstory for The Windup Girl (these two stories are freely available for download on the Night Shade Books website). The ten stories collected here are arranged in chronological order of publication, giving us an insight into Bacigalupi’s development as a writer, as well as the development of his ‘Windup Girl’ universe.

In ‘Pocketful of Dharma’, Bacigalupi gives us a future Chengdu (capital of Sichuan province, China) as experienced by a street urchin called Wang Jun. Fresh from the discovery of an expensive pair of glasses, the young beggar happens upon something even more valuable: a data cube containing a very important personage indeed. Beset by hostiles at every turn, Jun ends up in Huojianzhu, the organic architecture covering old Chengdu. This is a very auspicious debut story and one that demonstrates the author’s world-building powers most ably.

Most if not all of this author’s stories are set in ravaged futures, but none is more ravaged than that of ‘The People of Sand and Slag’. Here what remains of humanity has been completely transformed into near-immortal, god-like creations. Earth’s original flora and fauna is all but gone, which makes the appearance of a mangy dog in a tailings pit all the more surprising.

‘The Calorie Man’ is the first of two stories set in the ‘Windup Girl’ universe, which must have served as primers for the novel itself. Here Indian-born Lalji must sail down the Mississippi River in a kink-spring powered boat in search of a calorie man, Charles Bowman.  Bowman might be able to unlock the secrets of agriculture that have been stolen from the world by the tyrannical calorie companies, but the intellectual property police think otherwise. The idea at the heart of this story is a fascinatingly paranoid one.

The other ‘Windup Girl’ story, ‘Yellow Card Man’, features a Malay Chinese refugee named Tranh who bears more than a passing resemblance to Hock Seng from The Windup Girl. An incident at the end of the story confirms that in fact Tranh is Hock Seng after all. I had a do a bit of internet skullduggery to find out why this is (it turns out that Tranh is too much of a Vietnamese name, hence the change in the novel). That aside, ‘Yellow Card Man’ is essentially a prequel to Bacigalupi’s novel, and it’s a good one.

The last two stories aren’t SF at all, which isn’t to say they aren’t worth reading. All in all, Pump Six and Other Stories is a worthy collection by an up-and-coming writer in Bacigalupi. If anything, I’d recommend reading this before The Windup Girl. Now I’m on the lookout for Bacigalupi’s third book, a YA novel called Ship Breaker.

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Categories: Book Reviews
  1. June 2, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    Cool! I have been out of the loop lately and didn’t realize that it’s won so many awards.

    I’m happy to see that a book I contributed to in some small way is a Hugo and Nebula award winner! (I’m the guy who convinced Paolo to change the name of Tranh to Tan Hock Seng 🙂

    Just a small linguistic note: Tan Hock Seng is a MALAYAN Chinese, not a MALAY Chinese. MALAYs are probably the ethnic group from which came the Green Headbands who exterminated the Chinese in Malaya.

    Note: Malaya is not a name currently used much — the area is called Peninsular Malaysia in the current political situation. In Paolo’s world, East Malaysia probably seceded when the Green Headbands took over because they are more Christian rather than Muslim in that part of the country.

    And yes, I am a Christian Malaysian Chinese, and pray that Paolo’s vision is 100% wrong — people like me would be the first to be slaughtered in his world. Fortunately, if my Muslim friends are anything to judge by, it is highly unlikely for Paolo’s vision to come to pass.

  1. February 27, 2011 at 10:47 pm
  2. February 28, 2011 at 10:45 am

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