Reflections on The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Lately, I’ve been thinking about our climate future and it stresses the hell out of me. I blame it partly on starting Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl just before a big heatwave, which was followed by a small heatwave, and now here we are looking forward to a peak of 40°C (104°F) on Wednesday. And did you know that recently one of the towns up north hit 50°C (122°F)? Hnnnnngggggh

Getting into cli-fi at this point in recent history was maybe not the smartest choice. Or is it a necessary choice? Only time will tell.

The Windup Girl is a dystopian science fiction novel set in a futuristic Thai Kingdom that is weathering the storm of climate change, genetic modification, commercial greed, corrupt politics, “colonial” expansion and more. The Kingdom holds fast where other nations have collapsed or capitulated. Its citizens are tenacious.

The world-building was incredible, although maybe I’m biased at how Southeast Asian it was. I saw pieces of my culture in it, which is naturally enticing, though it was kind of weird seeing words I grew up with get italicised as if they should be treated as something other than ordinary. Not grumbling; I understand why it must be so.

I did catch one snippet of Mandarin that struck me as oddly Western influenced, which either speaks to my poor grasp of Mandarin or an intentionally clever hint from the author about the history of the world in his book. The idea of the latter tickles me, as one of the book’s themes is the relationship between East and West.

I couldn’t disagree with some of the less flattering reviews on Goodreads, but strangely the shortcomings they described ended up being things I enjoyed about The Windup Girl. The detached writing style left a lot to the imagination, especially when it came to the characters’ motivations and emotional states. And ironic as it sounds, this just made me get more invested in the characters and the story.

I was going to say something here about how writing romance has taught me that more exposition around thoughts and feelings is needed to guide readers through an emotional journey… but that’s not true, is it? For example, one of the things I love most about Stefanie Simpson’s romance books is that her style has elements of this too. I sense “gaps” when reading her work, and I instinctively want to fill them with my own interpretations and empathy.

The Windup Girl was an uncomfortable and at times stressful read, but it’s also artfully written (if you have a sense for those “gaps”) and features fascinating characters with well-considered flaws. Personally, I also loved the underlying messages and ideas that surfaced at the end. Even with a slightly ugly dystopian finish, they offered a glimmer of hope.

An elephant-like creature and robed people walk the market streets in futuristic Thailand on the cover of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi