Emiko is New People, a windup girl, heechy-keechy--a Japanese genetically-engineered entity conditioned to obey. Dumped in Bangkok by her owner, Emiko must remain in hiding from the white shirts--officers of the Environment Ministry--who would mulch her for being an illegal piece of trash. The owner of a seedy nightspot becomes her patron and uses her in sadistic performances in order to help pay for the bribes he must give to the white shirts. There seems to be no way out for Emiko until a farang, a foreigner, tells her of a place that New People can live in peace. The foreigner, Anderson, is a calorie man for AgriGen, hunting fruits and vegetables thought to be extinct in Thai marketplaces: bio-terrorism has shrunk the worlds biodiversity to a mere puddle. Though she's thought of as little more than a piece of genetic trash, Emiko will play a pivotal role in future of not only Bangkok, but the human race itself.
I was very impressed by The Windup Girl. Paolo Bacigalupi has created a complex, believable, and--naturally--grim view of the future. The best dystopian novels have their roots firmly planted in what the world is like today, and extrapolate forwards in time. What if all major crops were genetically engineered and controlled by multinationals? What if most biodiversity was wiped out by bio-terrorism?
Because this is a YA blog, a word about the content. The Windup Girl is a book for the adult market and contained all the aspects of books aimed at adults that I dislike. Highly complex socio-political structures. Numerous characters introduced at what seems like warp speed. My poor befuddled brain! Sadistic and violent sexual scenes or acts. Not one--not one--likable character, or at least a character you can gun for. Emiko, the titular character, was far too wretched to be likable.
That said, I did very much enjoy this book. While I dislike sexual violence in books (it's probably redundant to say I dislike it--it's not there to be enjoyed) the scenes were critical to the story and never gratuitous. And it never hurts to stretch the brain with a more complex story now and then. Bacigalupi can write vivid and engaging prose, and while the characters themselves aren't endearing, his turn of phrase certainly is.
I wouldn't recommend this book to young adults, or to anyone getting very excited about all the new YA dystopian books that are coming out this year, including Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker (excuse me while I SQUEE!) Dystopian books for young adults are infused with a lot of hope, and while The Windup Girl isn't an overly depressing read, without ruining the ending I'll say it has a lot in common with the Brave New Worlds and Nineteen Eighty-fours of dystopian fiction.
Ship Breaker is out May 1. Dannie has already given it a rave review.
See Thea's review on The Book Smugglers for a discussion of why The Windup Girl is not steampunk, despite making it onto Best Steampunk Books of 2009 all over the interwebs.