Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Windup Girl” is a near-future third-person narrative that takes place in 23rd century Bangkok, Thailand, and designs an intricate dystopian civilization where the world’s human populace and food supply have been consumed by diseases and deadly viruses (“cibiscosis,” blister rust,” and “genehack weevil”) causing entire species of life to become extinct. The food supply has been infected due to massive waves of corporately manufactured and engineered agricultural crop companies working in conjunction with the Environment Ministry and Trade Ministry to eliminate competition. Food corps and the calories they produce have become the new currency of trade: calories of food and measurable output energy producible calories (such calories as generated by potatoes). At the top of the food chain is food-corporate juggernaut “AgriGen” and one of its top executives, and the main protagonist of the story, Anderson Lake. Assuming a pseudo-persona of an innovative “kink-springs” developer, Anderson Lake is actually an undercover economic hitman for AgriGen, known as a “Calorie Man.” Lake leads an aggressive initiative set by the “Des Moines” based corporation. His assignment is to covertly work as a factory manager under the pretense of a new type of mechanical spring that is going to be revealed. Lake’s true mission is to locate Thailand’s incredibly lucrative seedbank and all the exotic fruit seeds it holds like “Ngaw” and “Rambutan” because conglomerates like “PurCal” and “AgriGen” control the marketplace through genetically altered food brands that were “gene-ripped” by “gene-hacked” seeds, bioterrorism, privately-owned armies and employees like Anderson Lake. This story is inundated with a plethora of characters, each one playing an important role to the dynamics of the unfolding storyline, but Anderson Lake and the book’s title character “The Windup Girl” (Emiko) are those most noteworthy. Succinctly, Windups, also referred to as “New People,” are essentially genetically modified test-tube babies: “it apes the motions of humanity, but it is only a dangerous experiment that has been allowed to proceed too far. A windup. Stutter-stop motion and the telltale jerk of a genetically engineered beast” (Bacigalupi 301). The preceding description is particularly disturbing as it mirrors ideological comparisons made towards African/Black-Americans during the era of slavery, and slaves are exactly what New People/Windups are in this society; in some countries they are regarded and detested as genetic trash without souls to be reincarnated. Emiko has been designed and programmed to be an extraordinarily beautiful, completely submissive geisha, and she is treated like a ragged sex-doll for perverse gratification: sexual bondage and physical abuse. New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys for the rich. However, the genetic makeup of New People give them abilities beyond that of regularly birthed homosapiens, like enhanced speed, strength, and agility. As the story slowly progresses, the political interests of the varying characters collide, and it appears the Thai government will be forced to give up its precious seedbank to corporate profiteers, but not before one last failed attempt at rebellion by Lieutenant, turned Captain, promoted to General Kanya Chirathivat leading the charge of the “White Shirts”; after the death of their leader Jaidee Rojjanasukchai (“Tiger of Bangkok”). It is during this final battle that the levees and dykes that were protecting the city from being consumed under sea level collapsed.

Due to global warming “it’s difficult not to always be aware of those high walls and the pressure of the water beyond. Difficult to think of the City of Divine Beings as anything other than a disaster waiting to happen” (Bacigalupi 7). The preceding denotes a continual need to safeguard the city against the adverse effects global warming is having of oceanic levels; thereby, delineating the initial conflict of the story as the novel’s setting, Thailand (which is bordered by two bodies of water the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea). Specific references to weatherization and climate change are subtlety inferred throughout the story allowing readers to determine what actual inference to apply to climate change affects. An example of this is demonstrated in the scene where Anderson and his colleague Richard Carlyle climb onto the roof of the factory: Anderson’s “hands burn on the tiles. He straightens, shaking them. It’s like standing on a skillet … breathing shallowly in the blast furnace heat … Sweat gleams on [Carlyle’s] face and soaks his shirt. They make their way over reddish tiles as the air boils around them” (Bacigalupi187-188). This quote does not specifically mention climate-change, but it is more than reasonable to conclude global warming as the determinate for the blistering heat. It is also logical to assess that the ozone layer must have reached an all-time low as all petroleum and fossil based energy resources are now nonexistent. The energy that operates the city is not procured from fossil fuels that are at the core of today’s energy conservation debates nor the alternative renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydroelectric and biomass. Energy is derived from manual labor. Sailing ships and dirigibles transport goods, computers exist but are operated with treadle-power, like antique sewing machines, guns shoot “razor disks” not bullets, and enormous genetically-modified elephants called “megodonts” and their human trainers manually wound kink-springs that store energy to be released later; think of a battery that is powered through kinetic rather than chemical energy. The effects of climate change comes in stages, “first came the rising sea levels, the need to construct the dikes and levees. And then came the oversight of power contracts and trading in pollution credits and climate infractions” (Bacigalupi 121). Next “massive holes cut into the red earth, lined to keep out the seep of the water table that lies close below. Wet land, and yet the surface bakes in the heat. The dry season never ends. Will the monsoon even come this year? Will it save them or drown them? With the climate so much altered, even the Environment Ministry’s own modelling computers are unsure of the monsoon from year to year” (Bacigalupi 239). The two aforementioned quotes presents the greatest dilemma faced by climate scientists and meteorologists, how does one accurately predict the weather? This novel does not try to answer this question, but rather presents a precautionary scenario. That is to say, in today’s present time humans can change the course they are traveling with regard to planetary destruction of the environment, but once the damage has occurred future generations will look back at this 21st century as a utopia compared to their time’s unpredictable weather.

For individuals who are fans of sci-fi/cli-fi literature Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Windup Girl” will most assuredly delight as it is a well-written, graphically detailed account of a plausible future ingrained with a complex plot. The author uses authentic Asiatic terminology and slang offering a genuine depiction of the Thai culture, but Bacigalupi’s also infuses his book with high-diction that clearly marks this novel as advanced reading geared toward more academic audiences, and not so much the contemporary laymen. The complicated and richly entranced storyline has multiple subtextual themes for which many groups and cultures of people will easily identify: focusing on trends in climate change data, bioengineering, political activism, religious fundamentalism, corporate espionage, sexual proclivities, physical abuse, economic disparity, civil war, racism, and classism. Individuals, like myself, who are not fans of this genre of writing will find the story long, drawn out, and lost for the first 130 pages (which could be omitted) as the novel has an extremely slow build to the dramatic end of the levees breaking and the water pumps going still with no animal nor human to turn them. The epilogue, which truly ends the book, gives the impression that this is the first in a series of works like Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower.” With this in mind, given the promise made to Emiko of being able to become fertile and reproduce this may be the beginning of a real world adaptation of the film I-Robot, but instead of robots, there will be a civil-war between birth-human beings and the test-tube generation.

Nature and Capitalism in the 23rd Century

It is tempting to read Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl as a story of GMOs gone wild. GMOs themselves are not so much the issue, however, as it is the ethics and philosophy behind their use that cause disaster. In Bacigalupi’s 23th Century Thailand, GMO food is an accepted, necessary part of the nation’s food supply. The problem is not that these foods are unhealthy, but that the actual companies that produce these GMO crops also produce plagues to wipe out their competitors’ products while showing little or no regard to how many people consequentially starve. These companies essentially cause the necessity of GMOs, as new crops are needed to replace those wiped out by plagues, and so Bacigalupi’s concern throughout The Windup Girl is the power that these bioengineering companies have, especially because of how they exploit global vulnerabilities created by climate change and the continued dominance of a capitalist global economic system.

In exploring this issue, Bacigalupi runs into more existential questions about bioengineering: what divides human civilization (i.e. our GMOs) from nature? Gibbons, the premier genesplicer in Bacigalupi’s world, posits that there is no difference: “We are nature. Our every tinkering is nature, our every biological striving. We are what we are, and the world is ours. We are its gods.” (Bacigalupi 243). While, as Aarthi Vadde notes, there is something “Machiavellian” about characters like Gibbons and his obsession with godhood, the premise that bioengineered, artificial evolution is an extension of nature may not be as radical as it seems. Scientists today arguing in favor of GMOs note that genetic manipulation is merely the advancement of techniques that we have already used for millennia: “according to [Dr. Steven] Novella, humans have been using selective breeding to create more desirable versions of plants and animals for thousands of years. In fact, it was a lone monk, Gregor Mendel, who in the 1800s discovered the laws of inheritance and launched the science of genetics by crossbreeding pea plants.” (Indre Viskontas, “No, GMOs Won’t Harm Your Health”). Still, no matter how ancient this assessment of nature’s boundaries may be, there are some dire implications to such a notion in the 23rd Century. The most damning of these implications is that if our GMOs are as disposable as the nature we create them from, (as indeed anthropocenic climate change asserts this disposability), then so too are the most ethically problematic GMOs imaginable: the New People.

Emiko, the titular windup girl, embodies the contradictions that this extended definition of nature entails. Emiko is conflicted between her instinctual inclinations for subservience, her strict obedience training, and her desire to be a free person. This desire, although it may deviate from other New People, (it is never confirmed if the village of free New People that Emiko dreams of is real), suggests that however artificial her origins are, she is of emotionally developed. We know that Emiko feels hope: “There is a place for windups. The knowledge tingles within her. A reason to live.” (Bacigalupi 101). We know that she feels pain and anger. Simply the fact that she feels conflicted demonstrates that despite the shackles of genetic programming she was created with, she is capable of experiencing different emotions. This is in turn should be evidence enough of her humanity, but Bacigalupi’s GMO humans experience an oppression that is much older than the technology that creates them.

Windups or New People are subjugated to slavery, and much like European colonial slavery of the past, this new generation of enslaved people is necessarily dehumanized. 23rd Century Thailand uses a Buddhist ideology to assume that New People like Emiko do not have souls, their justification being that New People are created rather than born. This definition of the soul, however, conflicts with the idea that New People are an extension of nature, and does not consider their capability of self-agency. This is because their inclination to follow their instinctual programming hides their agency. When Emiko does contradict these inclinations, while also expressing genuine emotion, she proves her agency resolutely effectively defies this dehumanization.

For these reasons, Emiko’s remarkable humanity is in an odd way, a kind of praise for GMOs, despite the manipulability and other negative traits that she is created with. Emiko is direct evidence for Gibbons’ definition of nature: she both is artificial in origin, yet natural in her humanity. Still, to treat her entirely as a positive portrayal of GMOs is both negligent and overly optimistic, as the cruel and oppressive flaws she is designed with once more remind us of the dangers that a bioengineering-centric view of nature poses. Creating GMO humans may not be such a bad thing if they are used primarily to continue the survival of the human race, (assuming that we count them as members of our kind), like Gibbons more or less hopes: “We should all be windups now. It’s easier to build a person impervious to blister rust than to protect an earlier version of the human creature.” (Bacigalupi 243). Creating GMO human slaves; however, as is the case with the New People, can only be seen as exploitative and sadistic; it relies upon a dehumanization of New People that Emiko’s character so resiliently contradicts.

That the calorie companies in Bacigalupi’s vision of the future can bioengineer both slaves and devastating crop diseases means that we need to be cautious about who has the power to tinker with GMOs and what the limits of GMO production should be. If we are to continue pursuing new GMO technology and crops, then we need powerful regulation, not just the kind we already follow to make GMOs safely palatable, but also the kind that carefully enforces humane ethics as well. Bacigalupi teaches us this and also warns us that as long as nature and civilization progressively meld together, there is much peril if a profit driven elite remains at the center of this fusion.


Works Cited:

Viskontas, Indre. “No, GMOs Won’t Harm Your Health.” Mother Jones. N.p., 14 Feb. 2014. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.

Vadde, Aarthi. “Megalopolis Now.” Public Books. N.p., 6 Aug. 2013. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.