The Windup Girl read as eco-fiction

Cover for The Windup Girl
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
It’s too bad more science fiction writers don’t address changes to Earth’s environment. Most are interested in the environment of other planets, while our home world’s atmosphere and biosphere grow more alien every day. Thank God for writers such as Margaret Atwood, with her Maddaddam Trilogy, Emmi Itäranta, author of The Memory of Water, and the late George Turner, whose The Sea and Summer anticipated the emerging eco-fiction genre by a generation.

Add to these Paolo Bacigalupi and The Windup Girl, which won the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Critics and marketers who insist on genre-izing everything have labeled it “biopunk,” a story taking humanity’s ten-thousand-year-old penchant for tinkering with biology to logical, if not absurd, commercial and scientific extremes. Writers fiddling with stories about climate change or GMO foods ought to look to The Windup Girl for lessons in how to approach these issues.

Bacigalupi imagines a relatively near-future post-carbon Bangkok where the leaders of the Environment Ministry and the Trade Ministry vie for political primacy. Planet-wide, humanity has survived an economic calamity brought about by the depletion of oil. The world is climbing out of the disaster, but the institutions of capitalism and government are little changed. It’s still all about money and power, only this time the fight is over control of bioengineered foods and alternate energy sources. The nightmare scenario of GMO paranoiacs–that man-made genes will supplant mother nature’s–has come to pass with devastating results. And a legacy of a world warmed by CO2–higher sea levels–is poised to kill the city like the sword of Damocles.

As fiction, The Windup Girl plays down the monster scenario, despite the cruel truth of viruses overwhelming public health systems (the current Ebola outbreak) and global-warming-enhanced megastorms destroying major cities (e.g. Katrina and New Orleans). The closest Bacigalupi comes is the eponymic Windup Girl, Emiko, an engineered human-like creature with an anger-management problem. Fortunately, she’s just one of many interesting characters, rather than the Grendel to be slayed. Bacigalupi’s deeper themes focus on whether values will change (or not) as people acquire new genetically modified options and stare at new environmental realities. A lazy reader would call the author’s answer dystopian, but anyone with a jaundiced view of Wall Street’s motives and the impacts of globalization will judge the rapacious behavior of The Windup Girl’s multinational corporations as only mildly exaggerated.

The strength of eco-fiction vis-à-vis other types of science fiction is how closely it can anticipate reality. Faster-than-light travel and encounters with alien beings may be fun to imagine, but they’re unlikely in the near term. Though no one has proven widespread ecological damage from genetically engineered plants or animals, the Monsantos of the world have won court cases against farmers practicing ancient traditions of seed-saving. Sea levels are already rising, as are global temperatures, and it’s a small leap from today’s early effects of warming to an Earth where the ice caps are gone and oceans flood protected cities, such as London or Venice. As speculation, The Windup Girl is probably as close to predictive as you’ll find.

Which author would you add to the eco-fiction list?

9 thoughts on “The Windup Girl read as eco-fiction

  1. Joe, I so wanted to like Windup Girl. I loved the concept. Loved the elephant/spring-powered factories: what a great idea. But the way the author treated the Windup Girl character turned my stomach: not that her life was so awful (that happens), but the voyeuristic glee he seemed to feel in watching that awfulness. It was too much for me and I had to stop reading.


    1. I can understand your point. I don’t know where you stopped in the story, but Emiko does get her revenge, which has a far greater impact than you might imagine. I’d encourage you to pick up the book again.


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