The Windup Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi image
Following the resounding success of my Locus Quest, I faced a dilemma: which reading list to follow it up with? Variety is the spice of life, so I’ve decided to diversify and pursue six different lists simultaneously. This book falls into my HUGO WINNERS list.

This is the reading list that follows the old adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". I loved reading the Locus Sci-Fi Award winners so I'm going to crack on with the Hugo winners next (but only the post-1980 winners, I'll follow up with pre-1980 another time).

I had mixed feelings before I read this book. It had been on my shelf for a few months and - on the one hand - most reviews were in agreement that this is a great book with brilliant writing, but - on the other hand - most reviewers were also in agreement that this is an incredibly bleak and disheartening vision of the future.

I sometimes find it hard to get excited about stories that I know are going to bring me down. I had a copy of Schindler's List for years before I watched it. I knew it would be amazing but it wasn't until a day I was already down in the dumps that I found the motivation to put it on - and then, oddly, it made me feel better, because, "hey, my day wasn't that bad in comparison!"

Generally I'm a happy soul at the moment, in my contented little bubble with my wife and baby son, so why go looking for the book that will bum you out? Because it really is brilliant, that's why!

Yes - The Windup Girl is bleak as f#ck. It does not pull punches. The world we meet is a sad and down-at-heel place. These characters are not nice people. Great things do not happen to them. They do not feel good about that. Most of them do not survive. We do not leave this world in a better state than we met it. That sucks.

But this is a writer who has really, really honed their craft. It's damn near flawless writing. Tense, vivid, original, expectant, gripping, sensual, imaginative, bold, mature, relentless, exciting, fascinating, provocative, exotic, timely, memorable... and yes, I really have run out of superlatives!

Every character here is expertly balanced. Each is powerful and driven, but also fundamentally flawed. Every character grows and changes in convincing and unexpected ways. Even though they're all working at cross-purposes, they all still endeared themselves to me. The Tiger, The Yellow-Card Spider, The Windup Girl, The Calorie Man and The New Tiger will all live long in my memory.

It was really refreshing to read a sci-fi set in Asia, with Thai words sprinkled throughout. A dystopian future in a Buddhist culture! You're plunged into this world, with all these superb little details and it's tightly woven and cohesive and... just a great setting!

The blend of technology got a big tick from me too. Kink springs, meagadonts, spring guns, clippers, methane lamps - each invention a plausible reaction to a post-oil, post-gun powder world. Technology is a cornerstone of sci-fi, and Bacigalupi has done a sterling job of high-tech/low-tech innovation.

I've seen The Windup Girl described as steampunk, which got me thinking. Steampunk is a derivative of cyberpunk, and this book definitely riffs off cyberpunk - the back cover blurb even name-checks Gibson. And a lot of the visuals and aesthetics do fit the steampunk ethos, but steampunk is conceptually a kind of pre-oil sci-fi, whereas this is post-oil, and although they may be in similar places on opposite sides of that curve, they're definitely not in the same head-space. I've seen this described as biopunk, which had a certain ring to. It would be interesting to see a little cloud of sf-punk subgeres evolve. Cyberpunk, steampunk, biopunk... What next? Spacepunk? Psypunk? Ecopunk? Funkpunk? :-)

The ending of the book has this little sequel-hook which didn't work for me. That's about my only complaint, really. I wouldn't complain about a sequel - I'd love to read a sequel! But the book was strong enough to stand alone in all respects, and I felt the little scene with the girl and the generipper saying "hmm, I wonder what happens next?" felt tacked on at the publishers request rather than fitting naturally within the narrative arc. Just my two cents.

My penultimate point is how hard this is to compare. Whenever I describe a book to someone who reads a lot, I try to say "it's a bit like..." But this one is tricky! It's a bit like Stephenson (if he stayed more disciplined). It's a bit like Simmons (if he narrowed his scope). It's a bit like Hamilton (if he had a grimmer outlook). It's a bit like Baxter (if he had more flair). It's a bit like Egan (if he could write deeper characters). It's a bit like Morgan (if he went multi-perspective). It's a bit like Robinson (if he got a lot more intense). But Bacigalupi is, at the end of the day, a strongly original author who has carved out a superb new niche - who I can't wait to read more from!

Final point (I promise, I know this has been a long review) - this got on to my reading list as a Hugo winner. It was the joint 2010 winner with China Miéville's The City & The City. My first big award-winners reading list was the Locus Sci-Fi winners - and they gave it to Boneshaker that year (huge mistake!). I'm a big Mieville fan, but of the three I'd give my award to The Windup Girl. It pushed all my buttons, and I kept being surprised by how much I was enjoying it. Definitely, highly, repeatedly recommended!

After this I read: Borders of Infinity