“The Windup Girl” by Paolo Bacigalup
Paperback: 300 pages
Publisher: Night Shade Books (April 20, 2010)
Publishers’ Weekly says of this novel: “This complex, literate and intensely felt tale, which recalls both William Gibson and Ian McDonald at their very best, will garner Bacigalupi significant critical attention and is clearly one of the finest science fiction novels of the year. ”
As an avid William Gibson fan, I thought that this would be an excellent novel; afterall it promises to be a mixture of cyberpunk/steampunk/industrial-espionage and an action thriller as well as many other genres, all rolled into one. So imagine my disappointment when this book turns out to be none of the above, but instead a long-winded drag through the streets of Bangkok with confused, half-developed characters who vanish from the story as quickly as their appear and seem as bewildered as I did. Pretend, if you will, that a novel is a story being acted out somewhere by the characters as if they were actors in a movie and the novelist is a guy running alongside them with a video camera capturing the action for the narrative. Bacigalupi was doing a great job of recording the ambiance of a futuristic and bleak Bangkok . However, after setting up the scene in the opening third, he quickly got bored with following his main characters and started to take random side-streets to film someone else instead. Then a little further on, he would run into another character who — for a few chapters — took his fancy, and his focus, away from the plot. Then after 270 pages, the author tried to tie it all up at the end but then apparently ran out of video tape! Throwing a new cassette into his camera, he concluded to cram what was left of his conclusion and 20% of the overall plot into a final hashed out “Epilogue” chapter. Some characters were just written off in a sentence, others were forgotten about altogether.
Being a fan of Cyberpunk, Steampunk, post-Modernism and dystopian fiction, I had high hopes for this novel but it lacked direction, and even though I finished the novel just this morning, I still don’t really know what it was about or what messages Bacigalupi was trying to put over. The over-obvious Blade Runner references (replicants, the question of “how human is human?” and built in countermeasures to protect humanity) are too blatantly ripped off. He even has the Windup Girl of the title turning into Tolkien’s Smeagol/Gollum for one scene which simply made me laugh in disbelief. Bacigalupi also littered the narrative with Thai and Chinese words without stopping to translate or explain most of them. While it’s nice to have some language to add flavor to the story, it becomes overwhelming and superfluous when by page 200, he’s still throwing words like “sanuk” and “khrab” and “khun” around like confetti. Overall, this book was a nice concept and its use of a different, exotic, and interesting location (Bangkok) was refreshing, but it was sadly flawed and let down by its constant floundering.
I gave this title 2/5 stars.
by Owen Fish
Owen Fish can be found at www.owenfish.com or on Twitter @emelano