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The Windup Girl
The Windup Girl is a biopunk science fiction novel by American writer Paolo Bacigalupi. It was his debut novel and was published by Night Shade Books on September 1, 2009. The novel was named as the ninth best fiction book of 2009 by TIME magazine, and as the best science fiction book of the year in the Reference and User Services Association's 2010 Reading List. The work won the 2010 Nebula Award, the Campbell Memorial Award, and the 2010 Hugo Award (tied with The City & the City by China Miéville for the Hugo Award), both for best novel. This book also won the 2010 Compton Crook Award and the 2010 Locus Award for best first novel.
The Windup Girl is set in 23rd-century Thailand. Global warming has raised the levels of world's oceans, carbon fuel sources have become depleted, and manually wound springs are used as energy storage devices. Biotechnology is dominant and megacorporations like AgriGen, PurCal and RedStar (called calorie companies) control food production through 'genehacked' seeds, and use bioterrorism, private armies and economic hitmen to create markets for their products. Frequent catastrophes, such as deadly and widespread plagues and illness, caused by genetically modified crops and mutant pests, ravage entire populations. The natural genetic seed stock of the world's plants has been almost completely supplanted by those that are genetically engineered to be sterile.
Thailand is an exception. It maintains its own reserve of genetically viable seeds, fights off engineered plagues and other bioterrorism, and keeps its borders firmly closed against the calorie companies and other foreign biological imports. The capital city of Bangkok is below sea level and is protected from flooding by levees and pumps. The current monarch of Thailand is a child queen who is essentially a figurehead; the three most powerful people in Thailand are the Somdet Chaopraya (regent for the child queen), General Pracha (the chief of the Environment Ministry), and Minister Akkarat (the chief of the Trade Ministry). Pracha and Akkarat are longtime enemies, and represent the protectionist/independent/isolationist and internationalist/accommodationalist factions in the government, respectively.
Anderson Lake is an economic hitman and the AgriGen representative in Thailand. He owns a factory trying to mass-produce a revolutionary new model of kink-spring (the successor, in the absence of oil or petroleum, to the internal-combustion engine) that will store gigajoules of energy. But the factory is a cover for his real mission: discovering the location of the Thai seedbank, with which Thailand has so far managed to resist the calorie companies' attempts at agro-economic subjugation. He leaves the running of the factory to his Chinese manager, Hock Seng, a refugee from the Malaysian purge of the ethnic Chinese. A businessman in his former life, Hock Seng plots to regain his former glory by stealing the kink-spring designs kept in Anderson's safe. When Emiko, an illegal Japanese "windup" (genetically modified human) girl stuck in a sex club, gives Anderson information she learned about the secret seedbank, he tells her about a refuge in the north of Thailand where people of Emiko's kind (the "New People") live together. This becomes fixated in her mind, and from then on she strives to pay off Raleigh, the club's owner, and escape to this refuge.
Meanwhile, Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, a zealous and honest captain of the white shirts (the armed, enforcement wing of the Environment Ministry, which is charged with preventing illegal imports, unauthorized energy use, and the incursions of bio-engineered viruses), intercepts and destroys a dirigible containing a great amount of illegal contraband. Anderson and others in the foreign trading community (known as "farangs") pressure Akkarat to make Jaidee back off. When Jaidee finds his wife is kidnapped, he submits and is sentenced to nine years in a monastery. Later realizing that his wife will never be returned to him and has likely been murdered, though, he escapes the monastery to infiltrate the Trade Ministry. He is caught and killed while trying to assassinate Akkarat. The other white shirts declare him a martyr and rise up against the Trade Ministry.
At the same time, Hock Seng learns that factory workers are falling victim to a new plague originating from the kink-spring factory. He has the bodies disposed of surreptitiously. As the white shirts take control of Bangkok, he escapes from the factory into hiding. Anderson discovers Hock Seng's flight and also goes into hiding. Jaidee's replacement (and former protégé), Kanya, discovers the new plague and sets about trying to contain it while dealing with guilt of being Akkarat's mole and betraying Jaidee. She reluctantly seeks help from Gibbons, the scientist at the heart of the Thai seedbank, who is revealed to be a renegade AgriGen scientist. He easily identifies the new plague and gives clues to Kanya that lead her to Anderson's factory.
Anderson meets with Akkarat and the Somdet Chaopraya, who is the regent to the young Thai Queen and the most powerful person in all of Thailand. Anderson offers to supply a new strain of GM rice and a private army from AgriGen to repel the white shirts in exchange for access to the seedbank and lowering of the trade barriers. To seal the deal, knowing of the Somdet Chaopraya's addiction to sexual novelty, he takes him to Emiko's club. When the Somdet Chaopraya and his entourage later sexually humiliate and degrade her, Emiko snaps and kills them and Raleigh, before seeking refuge with Anderson. Akkarat accuses General Pracha of orchestrating the Somdet Chaopraya's assassination and uses this as a pretext for regime change against Pracha and the white shirts. The capital is plunged into civil war.
Failing to steal the kink-spring designs, Hock Seng tries to capture Emiko for ransom. However, Anderson makes a deal with him: Hock Seng would be patronized by AgriGen and Emiko would remain with Anderson.
In short order, Pracha and most of the top Environment Ministry men are killed. Akkarat, now all-powerful, appoints his spy Kanya as the new chief of the Environment Ministry. He also opens up Thailand to the calorie companies, and grants Anderson and AgriGen access to the seedbank. Kanya, who is accompanying the "calorie men" to the seedbank, has a sudden revolution of conscience and patriotism, and executes the AgriGen team while in the seedbank. She then directs the seedbank's monks to move the seeds to a pre-arranged secure location. With the hidden military arsenal in the seedbank, she orchestrates yet another uprising and destroys the levees around Bangkok, flooding it. Bangkok's people and the capital relocate to the site of Ayutthaya. Akkarat becomes a monk to atone for his failure of protecting the capital. Anderson dies of the plague originating from his factory and Emiko eventually is found by Gibbons, who promises that he will use Emiko's DNA to engineer a new race of fertile New People, thus fulfilling her dream of living with her own kind.
Awards and honors
In September 2010, the novel won the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel category, tying with China Miéville's The City & the City. In May 2010, the novel won the Nebula Award for Best Novel. In 2010, the novel won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. In 2012 a translated version of the novel by Kazue Tanaka and Hiroshi Kaneko won a Seiun award for "Best Translated Long Fiction" at the 51st Japan Science Fiction Convention. The German translation Biokrieg won the Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis in 2012. The French translation La Fille automate won the Planete-SF Blogger's Award in 2012.
Adam Roberts, reviewing the book for The Guardian, concludes "when it hits its sweet-spot, The Windup Girl embodies what SF does best of all: it remakes reality in compelling, absorbing and thought-provoking ways, and it lives on vividly in the mind."