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The Windup Girl
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Book Discussions > The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

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The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Winner of the 2009 Hugo & Nebula Awards for Best Novel, the John W Campbell Memorial Award & the Locus Award for Best First Novel.


Aleah (aleahmarie) Hi everyone! I nominated The Windup Girl for discussion, so it looks like I'm to have the honor of serving as your friendly moderator.

The Windup Girl was Paolo Bacigalupi's debut novel -- he's been rather prolific since then with 5 more novels in the following 6 years. I ran across his novella, The Alchemist, in a collection of epic fantasy and certainly thought he was worth further consideration.

I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this book. Also, a gold star to whoever can tell me how to pronounce Bacigalupi. Is it pronounced the way it's spelled?


message 3: by Michele (new)

Michele | 274 comments Bah chee ga loopy :)


message 4: by [deleted user] (last edited Aug 21, 2015 07:19AM) (new)

Aleah wrote: "Also, a gold star to whoever can tell me how to pronounce Bacigalupi. Is it pronounced the way it's spelled?..."

When Paolo Bacigalupi was was down in Phoenix promoting his latest novel, The Water Knife (which is set in a future dystopian Phoenix), the bookstore introduced him as "bah-Chee-gah-LEW-pee". I.e., As spelled, with a "ch" sound for the "c", as from Italian.

Here is an Interview with Bacigalupi from the local Phoenix PBS station about The Water Knife that can give you the pronunciation (if you're willing to use Flash.)


message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

I read The Windup Girl several years ago (long enough ago that I owned in trade paperback.) I pulled it off the bookshelf to re-read, but before I get to that, I thought I'd offer some general, non-spoiler impressions from my first time through:

This is (mostly) a near-future science fiction (though it does have a small fantasy element at the end.)

What I really liked about this novel was how it was bristling with interesting ideas based on extrapolation of multiple current trends, creating a rather depressing future for Thailand. It encompasses the effects of global warming, sea level rise, genetically modified crops (GMOs) and related intellectual property law, changing weather and agricultural patterns, peak oil, carbon sequestration, immigration, import & population restrictions, disease contagions.... And throws in an artificial person (the windup girl) as well. It's done a lot of speculative extrapolation, and it's come up with an alternate economic & energy environment to suit those assumptions. It explores this imaginative (and scary) setting in the context of a crime drama.


Brendan (mistershine) | 743 comments The kink-spring technology bothered me so much in this novel. Some real nonsense thermodynamics in a book that was otherwise fairly serious about its science.


Aleah (aleahmarie) Ah, thank you Michele and G33z3r -- you win the gold stars! I was pronouncing it with a hard 'c' - the 'ch' makes so much more sense. bah-chee-gah-LEW-pee. Now I just have to repeat it a few times until it sticks!

I've seen this book described as "mundane science fiction," which I'll admit was a new one for me. As far as I can tell this is just another way to describe what G33z3r's calling a "near-future science fiction" story. Mundane SF is set in a plausible future that's lacking space travel, alien encounters, or any of the other fun bits that we often think of when we think of SF. You can read more about it here.

Have you heard of mundane science fiction? Do you think The Windup Girl qualifies?


Aleah (aleahmarie) Brendan wrote: "The kink-spring technology bothered me so much in this novel. Some real nonsense thermodynamics in a book that was otherwise fairly serious about its science."

I'll admit to just drinking the kool aid when it comes to hard science in sci-fi novels. Probably a side effect to being such a heavy reader of fantasy -- I'm up for whatever the author wants to throw at me. But for devoted readers to sci-fi, I see this sort of issue come up a lot. I think it's a chance the author takes when s/he writes a sci-fi story that's set in the near-future. If it's set hundreds of years from now we can sort of assume that science has advanced to a point where that warp drive and teleportation are perfectly plausible (Star Trek nerd, sorry). But if the story is set a generation down the road -- not so much.


Brendan (mistershine) | 743 comments I'm a big hypocrite here because I've said a lot that impossible science isn't a bad thing in a science fiction book, particularly if isn't plot essential.

I'm not sure, though, that Windup Girl counts as mundane under the manifesto. Artificial humans, the cheshires and the springs all seem pretty far beyond known science.


Andreas | 677 comments Aleah, I didn't know the term "mundane SF". But Bacigalupi was often put into the genre of clifi (Climatic Science Fiction) - I think his newest novel The Water Knife falls into this category. G33z3r already read that one and I've got it on my shelf.

I've read Windup Girl in March and it was a clear 5 star for me (sorry, no review, I was a lazybone). It is interesting that a couple of groups are reading it currently or within a month or two. I've tried to put it on BotM lists a couple of times but never succeeded, and now it's popping up everywhere. Can't figure out why that is the case.

The spring technology was featured in a couple of short stories of Bacigalupi - I've read his collection Pump Six and Other Stories and it was very strange to read in a short story. But I don't mind it as a technology of a novel. It's just a side-feature, an innovative, crazy one, indeed, but nothing really important.

Pronounciation of Bacigalupi? Was easy for me :) It's obviously Italian, and I've learned Latin in school from which I imagined the pronunciation.


message 11: by Michele (new)

Michele | 274 comments Ok, I read the first two chapters and was totally bored by all the overly detailed business stuff. And if that business guy is the main character, I'm finding him incredibly annoying.

I understand that I'm getting thrown into the deep end of this story and that it's science FICTION, but the whole "calorie" plague, or whatever happened makes zero sense and I'm finding it really hard to care enough to keep reading.

I need encouragement here. I'm not the biggest fan of cyberpunk or dystopian, which is what this seems like to me, but I can read anything if I find the main characters interesting. So someone tell me there's more interesting characters to follow than this corporate spy and the rebellious displaced Chinese man.


message 12: by Brendan (last edited Aug 22, 2015 03:18PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Brendan (mistershine) | 743 comments There are many, many other characters. Not sure if they'll be interesting or not. The American is the main character and yeah, he's awful. It was unclear to me whether he's awful because he's supposed to be.


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Brendan wrote: "The kink-spring technology bothered me so much in this novel. Some real nonsense thermodynamics in a book that was otherwise fairly serious about its science."

I kind of liked the idea of reviving spring technology for storage of kinetic energy. I didn't think it was any more of a scientific stretch of material science than the genehacking science was an extension of current genetic engineering capabilities. And it had the added bonus of kind of going in full circle into the past, much the way using genetically engineered animals as an alternative to fossil fuel engines was a step into the past.


Aleah (aleahmarie) Michele wrote: "Ok, I read the first two chapters and was totally bored by all the overly detailed business stuff. And if that business guy is the main character, I'm finding him incredibly annoying.

I don't mind the detailed business stuff too much. I tuck it under the category of "world building" and just keep going. But I'm with you on your assessment of Anderson. The first couple of chapters introduce him as pushy, arrogant, and petulant. I'm guessing Bacigalupi is making his feelings on American imperialism loud and clear with this dude. I like Hock Seng in these first few chapters, though. He's obviously trapped in this situation but he has an escape plan and he's biding his time. Also, he's sneaky.


message 15: by Rose (new) - rated it 1 star

Rose | 201 comments I couldn't read this book. I tried, I really did but I found myself lost half of the time. He would make up words and it took a chapter or more before it was explained what that word was, then I had to go back to re-read so I could understand properly what happened. It's one of my few DNF books.
I discovered later Pump Six and Other Stories which are his short stories, of which two are set in this world. They made the portion of The Windup Girl that I had read make more sense, although I still haven't given TWG another try.


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Jason (alerum68) | 11 comments I think I'm on the same boat with Rose. I've tried and tried, and just can't get pulled into it. the characters feel hollow to me, and his lack off explanation of things drives me ape poo poo. I'm not sure I'm going to finish this one either. going to give it one more try this weekend, and maybe it'll pull me in.


message 17: by Geoffreyjen (last edited Aug 26, 2015 03:33PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Geoffreyjen (gedsy) | 17 comments I remember reading this book several years ago (before I joined Goodreads, so no review) and loved it... although I also remember being a little disappointed with the ending. The set up and premise were rich and complex, but the denouement seemed a little simplistic. Being a writer myself, I know that endings are sometimes hard to write, though, especially for complex story lines. I loved. the fact that the story took place in Thailand, outside the usual settings for SF, and that it drew in Thai culture, it asn't just some other SF story parachuted onto that culture, it needed the local culture to work. I've got The Alchemist, but I haven't been able to get into it so far.


Aleah (aleahmarie) Jason wrote: "I think I'm on the same boat with Rose. I've tried and tried, and just can't get pulled into it. the characters feel hollow to me, and his lack off explanation of things drives me ape poo poo. I'm ..."

I've only read one other story of Bacigalupi's so I don't have much to compare. I wonder if Windup Girl is indicative of his writing style in general? Has anyone else who's read other works by him care to comment?


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Aleah wrote: "I've only read one other story of Bacigalupi's so I don't have much to compare. I wonder if Windup Girl is indicative of his writing style in general? Has anyone else who's read other works by him care to comment? ..."

Once upon a time I asked people How Do You like Your Exposition?

In The Windup Girl Bacigalupi uses what I then called "Scrambled", but which might be better thought of as, "Throw them into the Deep End" exposition technique. He simply starts telling the story, throwing out whatever terms are part of the narration, and assume the reader will figure it out from context or mind reading.

I re-read the first two chapters last night specifically to look for such jargon. Honestly, it didn't seem all that difficult terminologically, though I won't claim the narrative is perfect by any means. (I usually describe Windup Girl is rich in ideas, not prose.) Some terms, like "genehacking" seem self-evident and I don't even think original with Bacigalupi. He's got a made-up disease (cibiscosis), genetically engineered fruit (ngaw) & creatures (megadont) and their handlers (mahouts), a new energy kinetic storing device (kink spring), and some foreign terms (wai, gaijin, though I'm pretty sure latter's Japanese not Thai.)

When he writes things like "Malayan refugees hurriedly scald chapatis and boil kopi," I just take it as local color and ignore what either of those terms mean. (Flatbread and a coffee you don't want to know how it's brewed.)

I've certainly read books that are a lot harder to get traction in (I'm looking at you, Quantum Thief, Mirror Empire)

To answer Aleah's question about other Bacigalupi works, his most recent, The Water Knife, is a much simpler book than Windup Girl, not so far in the future and concerned only with water shortages, (instead of encompassing genetic engineering, GMOs, flooding, alternate energies, intellectual property law, oil shortages, immigration, and artificial people and their legal status.) It's also set in the US, so no foreign terms or customs (beyond a few Spanish words.) It may also help that Water Knife is set practically in my backyard, so I don't have to look up a lot of terms it throws around. How well known those things are in the rest of the country/world, I have no idea.


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Jason (alerum68) | 11 comments I usually love that style... ie Erikson with the Malazan series. I wonder if my main issue is with his character building. he seems to be an excellent world builder, but I just feel his characters are a way for you to explore the world he created.


message 21: by Michele (new)

Michele | 274 comments Yup, I don't usually have any problems with the "scrambled" style - I guess this one, the jumping in point isn't grabbing me enough to make me want to continue.


message 22: by Brendan (last edited Aug 28, 2015 09:28AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Brendan (mistershine) | 743 comments Small point of order: mahout is not made up, it's the English word for elephant keeper.

I'd call this style the Gibson, myself. Bacigalupi obviously took a lot of cues from cyberpunk when he wrote this one (biopunk?).

In general it's a style I like when done well (I thought Mirror Empire and Quantum Thief were both great). I didn't find Windup Girl's execution to be the best.


message 23: by [deleted user] (last edited Aug 31, 2015 07:07AM) (new)

Brendan wrote: "There are many, many other characters. Not sure if they'll be interesting or not. The American is the main character and yeah, he's awful. It was unclear to me whether he's awful because he's supposed to be. ..."

I didn't think Anderson was the main character, just the first introduced. He's just the representative of the nasty foreign agribusiness, AgriGen, which I assume is a stand-in for Monsanto. Purveyor of copyrighted and patented genetically modified seeds. Thailand is one of the few less-developed countries that has resisted AgriGen's indirect ownership of the food supply by owning the seeds. In fact, Thailand has a large seed bank of natural, public domain seed stock, which AgriGen would love to get its hands on. That, and getting AgriGen GMOs a toehold in Thailand is Anderson's job.

(Aside: I assumed Baccigalupi invented "AgriGen" as a fictional company to avoid lawsuits, but using Bing I notice it's a real Australian company.)

I thought it was interesting that Anderson could discuss several instances of bad behavior by his Corporation, but waved it away because those weren't his projects. I think he's a good example of how acting on behalf of a corporation allows us to suppress our own moral culpability by simply attributing our actions to the Corporation, not us personally.


message 24: by [deleted user] (last edited Aug 31, 2015 07:41AM) (new)

Hock Seng is a refugee and thus second-class citizen in Thailand, so he needs the job with Anderson, even if the factory he's running is nothing but a cover. Hock Seng actually cares more about the "kink-spring" technology than Anderson does. He's hoping to one day have his own spring factory, using technology he appropriates from Anderson (who he reasons isn't really interested in the technology, anyway.) He's the prototypical underclass hustler, navigating the corruption of Thai society in the hopes of bettering his own life.


Jaidee, the lawman, is the archetypical White Knight, the only honest man in a corrupt bureaucracy. He's a true patriot in that what he does is for the benefit of Thailand (not necessarily its government and certainly not its bureaucracy.) Incorruptible, he won't take bribes or play the game.

His subordinate Kanya is initially a spy for the bureaucracy, but has has bought into Jaidee's brand of incorruptible patriotism, and is struggling to reconcile the two roles. She's also trying to track down serious threats to Thailand while her various governmental superiors seem more interested in playing politics with each other.


The title character, Emiko, the artificial person, is the one I have the most trouble with. Mostly it's a question of, what the heck is she doing in this story? To me, she seems outside the main plot line (despite being, in some ways, both a GMO & a refugee.) She intersects with a couple of the characters, but never seemed integral to the plot to me. Which is strange for a title character.


Brendan (mistershine) | 743 comments I totally agree that Emiko was underused in the story, and for being the title character I expected her to have a much larger role.


message 26: by Eco (new) - rated it 2 stars

Eco Imp | 1 comments I just finished reading The Windup Girl and found it disappointing. I had to force myself to get past the build-up with Anderson and wondering why the title had windup in it. It felt as if the book was a mashup of two short stories.
With most books, I just keep going when new words/language is introduced until I catch on. With this book, I kept getting thrown out of the world as I tried to grasp the context of the Thai words. Gaijin and mahout were the few knowns. Bacigalupi did a great job designing Krung Thep, the City of Divine Beings. It is a pity that the story was not executed better.


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