Subvert's Reviews > The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
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's review
Feb 24, 12

Read from February 07 to 24, 2012

So I had heard of this book more than half a year ago after already living in Bangkok for some months. I couldn't believe it. A book about a dystopian future with biotech corporations going crazy for profit with Bangkok as a setting, including all the Thai political intrigues during the reign of Rama XII? With no good&evil simplistic nonsense but all characters that just follow their own plans for good reasons. And this book also won prices as one of the best things science-fiction had to offer in recent years? It sounded like the perfect book.

It took me some time to actually find the book in the stores and then I didn't even buy it as I'm a bit frugal. But some months ago a friend of mine got a copy and asked if I knew it. Yes I did and I made him promise to let me read it when he finished.

So yes, earlier this month I was finally reading the book I had been looking forward to for a long time. But sadly for the Wind Up Girl, I was reading Middlemarch simultaneously, and especially in comparison with a book like Middlemarch it becomes painfully apparent how simplistic and flat the characters in the Wind Up Girl are. It is probably a bit unfair to compare an 'easy entertainment' science fiction book with one of the greatest works of English literature, 99% of the world's books have embarrassingly flat characters compared to those in Middlemarch. But it annoyed me.

I am not an expert on writing, but is of course rather impossible to write a book with an ambitious setting as the Wind Up Girl, a background that you will have to explain to the reader, with many plots, and a complex set of characters with plotlines that all come together to a satisfied ending, and then to still have characters that are not 100% flat in comparison to those in George Eliot's Middlemarch in less than 400 pages.

But still, it annoyed me. What I particularly disliked how much stereotypical they were, the Thais, the Japanese wind up girl, the ambitious American, the hard-working Chinese man that wants his clan to recover. They are all extremely xenophobic and incapable of understanding the other character. The culture clash between them is so over-exaggerated it becomes unrealistic. All the foreigners are either farang, gaijin or laowei depending on the character's background.

It just becomes a bit too cliché'ish for my liking. Lazy Thais, hardworking Chinese, sleazy farang, overly devout Buddhists. The white shirts versus trade. The glorious monarch being foreseeing enough to build walls in order to protect Bangkok for the rising tide (unlike the world's other big cities that are flooded - slightly ironic even considering the fall of 2011). Yes, there is even a bit of monarchy propaganda in it with King Bhumibol being referred to as great scientific monarch that developed the country. I can forgive that though. And also the biotech corporations and an economy based on... calories? I'm a bit sceptical, though I can suspense my disbelief, it's science fiction after all.

There are plenty of things that I did like though. The last 100 pages saved the book for me. It is quite brilliant how it all comes together. And there are so many things happening. Quite unexpected ending even and satisfying without the kind of Hollywood-ending feel. I do like the idea of an Expansion and a Contraction of world history. And the setting continues to be amazing. I like recognizing the landmarks of Bangkok in the book. It sucks me in. I also like the use of Thai (and other Asian language) words everywhere. I do wonder how that works for someone who has never been in Thailand as the book might be harder to follow. I guess for them it would make it more exotic, like as if it would be on an alien planet with an alien language. I suppose it works quite well.

As for real world parallels. It is not in any way a critical assessment of current Thai politics as a form of parody that I hoped for. It just takes contemporary 'mainstream' understanding of Thai politics with the yellow and red shirts, the corruption, Buddhism and the monarchy, and then takes it to a 22th century setting. But no real critical understanding. Not much on how Buddhism and the monarchy is used to oppress lower classes and maintain the status quo. Parallels of the characters with the real world? (view spoiler)

Anyway. Recommended? Depends on your standards. Want a quick fun entertaining read with a thought-provoking science-fiction setting? Go read it. Do you live in Thailand or know Bangkok? It will make it better. Did you just read Middlemarch or you are looking for a book with some fundamental insights on the human condition? Don't bother.

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