Friday, 1 June 2012

The WindUp Girl: a review


A recent novel, only coming out in 2009, the WindUp Girl is a biopunk novel that posits a triple apocalypse, first that the oil runs out, second global warming will make the seas rise dramatically and thirdly that the natural world comes under attack from genetically engineered viruses and organisms designed by humans to be more “efficient”, or more human friendly, if you prefer with predictably disastrous results.  This has led to a situation where wide spread devastation has swept the world, in a wave that’s led to a long contraction, a period with little trade or communication that is largely kept a mystery.  We know that it has toppled China completely as a world power, or possibly even a place where people can live (at which point it must have been something significant given the size of China), but mysteriously left the USA, or perhaps more accurately American biogenetic engineering companies, in a position of strength; something I can only ascribe to the fact the author is American.  The novel takes place in Thailand during a new wave of trade and exploration and there’s an inference that it’s the last of the world’s nations to resist the new Expansion.

The plot essentially follows two overlapping paths, first following an Agri corp agent who’s trying to locate Thailand’s seed bank in order to harvest its genetics and the second following Emiko, the WindUp Girl of the book’s title, an artificially created human who’s been made in Japan to make up for the Japanese labour shortage and who finds herself in Thailand, forced into prostitution and dreaming of freedom and respect.  Around these plots other characters move, in particularly Hong Sek, a Chinese business man reduced to working for the Agri corp agent’s cover company whose own schemes to restore his family’s wealth and status are at odds with his employers and a pair of Thai White Shirts, essentially environmental “purity cops”, one of who’s overzealousness threatens to bring the Kingdom down in anarchy, whilst the other harbours a much darker secret.  A wide canvas is used, to take the story from a few incidents to a grand guignol of chaos and revolution.

It’s a well realised novel, with a lot of interesting ideas, especially in terms of the curious mixture of advanced and antiquated technology portrayed and the ways that the biogenetic technology is put to work.  The fact that the world is post oil is explored quite deftly, with spring generated power and methane burners being the norm, or genetically engineered animals, developed for greater strength and endurance if technology fails to deliver or is simply too expensive.  A lot of thought, too, has been put into the split between rich and poor and the inevitable tensions that would arise in a world where food itself is under threat, reflecting the nagging anxiety over GM crops and corporations like Monsato and the ever spreading deserts and rising temperatures which are affecting the planet now.

I found it a little bit tasteless in places, the treatment that Emiko is put through as part of her job in the sex club seemed inhumanly cruel and frankly unnecessary to relate in so much detail, especially in the later scenes, we know that her life is horrible and she is forced to do horrible things without having to read about it in such detail, and there are a few plot holes that don’t get cleared up. 

That aside the other issue, for me, was that the author comes across as quite culturally myopic, painting in broad strokes in a way that could be seen as quite insulting.  Thailand is more or less boiled down to lady boys, prostitution, monarchy, kickboxing and Buddhism; anything else really seems to be a garnish.  Japan does not fare much better, we’re told that lack of population growth leads to the creation of the WindUps, artificial servants and that even in the 23rd Century Japan is isolationist and clings to its traditions, hence the ambassador indulging in a tea ceremony.  Again, these are current concerns, there’s very little in the way of projection into the future here which is a shame.  Whilst this kind of shorthand is understandable to an extent, and the WindUp Girl is by no means the worst offender, it still feels lazy and needlessly uninformed.