Beastly hot weather - one of the main actors in "The Windup Girl" - now gives me pause. I read this book following one of the hottest summers in Minnesota history, and a winter where we had 50-plus degree temperatures in January and 80-plus degrees in early March, a full 40 degrees above normal temps. So a world warmed to the point where rising sea levels swamp New York, Rangoon, and New Orleans doesn't seem much like science fiction. It's a distinct possibility, giving Bacigalupi's work added urgency and present relevance. Throughout the read, I couldn't shake a deep feeling of foreboding for Bangkok's fragile existence. Thoughts of the levees and the threatening waters beyond were ever-present to me as I read.
And the waters aren't the only "floods" being fought by Bacigalupi's Bangkok. Genetically modified cats, lizards, soldiers, women, grains, you name it; other nations; refugees from neighboring countries; farang/foreign "devils"; globalization - all threaten the identity of a Thai Kingdom fiercely proud of it's independence, of the fact that no colonizing power has ever been able to wrest power from the Thai people. For the Thai of the 22nd century, globalization means deadly invasive animal species, military coups, starvation, wars, GM spores blowing across their borders, "soulless" windups, and dependence on people and corporations who have pushed them repeatedly to extinction. Hence their insistence on maintaining "purity" through any means possible, including mass killings, burning of entire villages, horrible mistreatment of the "others" amongst them, and urban warfare between factions loyal to Trade, Environment, and Crown. While reading, I couldn't shake recent images of Wisconsinites flocking to rivers to kill invasive Asian Carp. One man stood in the current with a baseball bat, drinking beer and clubbing the carp as they skimmed the water's surface. "White Shirts" and other residents of Bacigalupi's Bangkok represent a darker, more desperate version of this bat-wielding foe of invasiveness. Bacigalupi's future world is so familiar, so frightening.
"The Windup Girl" spawns a number of interesting debates. What philosophical or theological frameworks can be used to understand genetically modified human and nonhuman animals? What place do GMOs have in our world? Are existing ethical models adequate for addressing the exponential growth in scientific knowledge and capability? What economic system best serves all of humankind and the world in which we live? Bacigalupi makes the ethical questions surrounding treatment of the windup Emiko more interesting by making her so like us. The descriptions of her gene-based urges did not sound so alien to my experience. Her character begs the question: "Does nature or nurture most determine our actions?" A lot of both, it seems. If it weren't for the required "tell" of herky jerky movement, Emiko would act and appear like any other guest in a foreign country. So what right does anyone have to mulch her or treat her like a sex toy or piece of garbage? I struggle to temper my complete rejection and revulsion of the treatment of Emiko with the humility of not knowing how fearing for my own survival would impact my relationships with others. I hope I would nurture Emiko with respect instead of hate.
For me, Bacigalupi earns the highest of marks for writing a book that forces me to engage such hard questions. Throw in tight storytelling, an ability to depict heat in such a way that makes readers drip with sweat, and a commitment to writing science fiction informed by the geopolitical and climate realities of today, I can see why the accolades keep rolling in for "The Windup Girl". Bacigalupi deserves every bit of the praise he's receiving.