The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi

<em class="BookTitle">The Windup Girl</em>, Paolo Bacigalupi

Night Shade Books, 2009, 361 pages, $24.95 hc, ISBN 978-1-59780-157-7

Two definitions submitted for your consideration:

  • Spring-loaded cat: In horror movies, a moment during which audience and characters alike are momentarily horrified by the sudden appearance of what turns out to be a cat.  Essentially: a cheap scare.
  • Spring-powered future: In science-fiction novels, a moment during which the reader realizes the hollowness of a dystopian future thanks to a telling detail that turns out to be nonsense.  Essentially: a cheap scare.

Over the past few years, Paolo Bacigalupi has become the hot new Science Fiction writer of the moment.  A string of Hugo nominations for dour and depressing short stories paved the way, but in 2010 he finally hit the big time thanks to Nebula and Locus Awards for his first novel The Windup Girl (set in the same world as many of his short stories), along with a Hugo nomination for the same novel.  As I write this, he is the odds-on favourite to win the award.

It’s probably impossible to discuss Bacigalupi’s stature in the Science Fiction field without dwelling on the fact that the genre, as a whole, has grown much bleaker in the past decade.  Year’s Best SF anthologies filled with catastrophe stories, a fascination for fascism and environmental collapses, as well as a sharp uptick in both post-apocalyptic stories (often with zombies) and retro-looking steampunk are some signs of the times.  In this context, Bacigalupi’s bleak post-peak-oil stories and depressing themes fit with the contemporary tune of the genre.

Being temperamentally opposed to gratuitously downbeat futures, I had no plans to read The Windup Girl until it swept the awards raffles.  I did so out of duty, and mention this so no one gets any false ideas about my prejudices going into the novel.  The best that I can report is that Bacigalupi’s first novel is exactly what it attempts to do, and isn’t uninteresting to read.  Alas, it’s also a pile of nonsense that never engaged my suspension of disbelief.

The problems start early on: In The Windup Girl’s post-oil Thailand, humanity is forced to scrounge for energy sources having conveniently forgotten all about nuclear power.  So much so that we’re asked to believe in a “kink-spring the size of [a] fist that hold a gigajoule of power” [P.5]  Except that such a gadget is impossible: I had been warned about those magical springs by other savvier readers, but elementary calculations confirm how ludicrous an idea this is:  A gigajoule of power is equivalent to about 26.5 litres of oil, and would be enough to send almost 20 kilograms in geostationary orbit.  (Thank you Wikipedia.)  You can’t stuff that amount of energy in fist-sized metal springs, no matter the amount of hand-waving about revolutionary coating: the only way to get that type of energy density would be with a fist-sized fusion reactor.  But impossible springs charged through inefficient animal labour are only a symptom of bigger world-building problems.  This is a book that features bioengineering good enough to synthesize quasi-human characters, but nothing like biofuel-producing algae.  A book in which zeppelin shipping is somehow cheaper than barges.  A book in which bioengineered plagues that somehow escape national retribution co-exist with carbon taxes that are paid because (one presumes) national retribution still works pretty well.  Other contradictions multiply, but I would simply be repeating myself:  Coherent world-building, obviously, is best reserved for optimistic people.  Then again, I have higher standards for unreasonably pessimistic political viewpoints with which I disagree.

Not that the thin coherence of this bleak future is any surprise.  Bacigalupi has obviously tricked the deck in favour of his preferred outcome (which, to repeat, would be that we’re doomed, doomed, doomed) and written a novel around this thesis.  If humanity was as stupid as it’s made to be in The Windup Girl, then it would deserve to die.  Anyone who needs convincing only has to make it to the grim end of the book, which manages to pull off a downbeat ending out of a resolution that could have gone otherwise.  Oppressors and victims jostle for attention as characters, and it’s no accident if the most sympathetic of them is taken out early on.  The titular character’s role is to suffer abuse until she can’t take it any more… and given the leisurely pacing of the book, that means a lot of abuse.

This being said, readers who enjoy depressive episodes and bleak visions of the future will be charmed by the novel, in part because despite its other faults, it’s decently written and manages to fulfill every single one of its own objectives.  The prose is above-average for a genre that values simplicity, and some of the dramatic sequences have a good narrative kick to them.  (Great cover, too.)

Still, this is a novel that is carried by the quirks of our time, and will suffer for them as well.  Readers with long memories may recall a similar vogue in downbeat eco-catastrophism in the seventies –those novels haven’t aged very well, and despite the success that The Windup Girl may enjoy at the moment, I doubt that it will survive as freshly in a decade or so.  (About the time we will all go “Hey, remember the fuss about peak oil?  Wasn’t that a lot of short-sighted panic?”)  The Windup Girl is a novel of its time, but then again our times suck.

5 thoughts on “The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi”

  1. Just re-reading WUG and came across your comments when researching spring energy density. Just wanted to throw out a couple thoughts/rebuttals: first, there are plenty of reasons why fission reactors would prove unworkable in a scenario where not only are advanced machining techniques radically curtailed, but also water levels are in extreme flux. No rational entity would risk a coastal reactor in such situations, and one must assume that inland populations have largely declined to subsistence levels due to the posited famine cycles, leaving fission power only available in limited capacity to the elites (as we can assume Emiko’s original owner to have been, hence the availability of climate control.)

    Secondly, carbon nanotube springs are already achieving an energy density of between 1 and 6 million kilojoules per cubic meter (see Wikipedia for verified references). No reason to think that this would not have increased a few more times, we’re already in the right order of magnitude. And, incidentally and perhaps coincidentally, the mechanical stability issues being observed by such springs now are similar to those posited in WUG, as are the manufacturing processes, assuming the book’s technological limitations and advances.

    Finally, it is strongly implied in the book that the petrochemical crisis is not the result of a “peak oil” model, but rather a consequence of microbial bioengineering. Thus the need for novel polymers, etc.; furthermore, the book takes place in a world where the CO2 cycle is well enough understood that the relationship between climate change and combustion is no longer beset with politicized skepticism, and therefore, biofuels, or any combustion based power, has been drastically curtailed and regulated in the interests of survival. (As fission power is today, so, ya know, not so bizarre an idea.) Finally, again, the bioengineered plagues posited have simply wiped out the great majority of plants and animals that could have been used to produce biofuels, replacing them with single-use sterile strains or with exceptionally vigorous, invasive strains.

    Much as I had expected to find fault with the science and the world-building in WUG, for me — and I am kind of a science guy, and easily irritated by nonsense — it holds up.

    1. Very interesting –consider me schooled, and thanks for the researched argument.

    2. Carbon nanotubes storing 6 million kilojoules per cubic metre are by no means in the right order of magnitude for a fist-sized kink-spring to store a gigajoule of energy. My fist is about 500cc, maybe 1/2,000th of a cubic metre. So we need more than 100 times as much energy in something less than 1,000th the volume, and we’re off by more than five orders of magnitude.

  2. Right about your calculations in size, but not about the calculations in energy. 6 million kilojoules are 6 gigajoules, so it means that a device of 500cc would store 3 megajoules. Sure this is 300 times less than in the book, but not 5 orders of magnitude less.

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