Avoiding Dystopia


Night Shade Books

“Nothing is permanent. This is the central teaching of the Buddha. Not a career, not an institution, not a wife, not a tree … All is change; change is the only truth.”
– Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl

I’ve always been a huge fan of futuristic, utopian-dystopian style books. I was inspired at a young age by one of the best teachers I ever had, Mr. McKinnon, who introduced our English class to a semester of George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia.

So when I heard about Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, I was super excited. A biopunk, science fiction, dystopian novel? Yes, please!

Written in 2009, the book provides a glimpse into a world with scarce fossil fuel reserves, high and rising sea levels, genetically modified humans and animals, and a food industry largely based on genetically modified foods and controlled by just a few big players. The “calorie companies” offer flavorless food and have similarly flavorless names like PurCal, AgriGen, and RedStar. Would you like some U-Tex rice with your SoyPRO?

Set in twenty-third century Bangkok, Thailand, the novel begins after a number of catastrophes have ravaged the planet, including plagues and illness. The book interweaves the lives of a number of interesting and likeable characters: Hock Seng, the untrustworthy, crafty Chinese “yellow card” who lost his entire family and fortune to the Malays in the apocalypse; Anderson Lake, an undercover AgriGen rep whose alliances and strengths are never entirely clear; Jaidee the tiger, the incorruptible and inspiring leader and fighter; and Kanya, Jaidee’s second in command, who is not all she seems.

And then there’s Emiko. The title of the book, is based on the concept of windups, who are genetically engineered human robots, programmed as slaves and programmed to obey. In Thailand, windups are especially hated and targeted by a resistance group led by Jaidee that mulches any windups on sight. The book focuses on Emiko, her struggle with her programming and design, and a caste system where she sits on the bottom rung and is hated by the majority of the population. The windup concept conjured up memories of the replicants and their struggle for survival in the movie Blade Runner, based on Phillips K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Bacigalupi’s vision, however, is much darker.

The imagery of the book is amazing, evoking visuals of a humid, sweltering, and decaying Bangkok surrounded by a wall and levees to keep the seawater at bay, with no air conditioning, power, or cars (except for the small handful of elite), and a transport and power system based nearly entirely on dirigibles, “kink springs,” and genetically modified elephants called megadonts who trudge around cable poles and are whipped mercilessly by their handlers.

The Windup Girl is not by any stretch of the imagination an easy to digest, good-natured, happy-ever-after novel. The themes are gritty, the dialogue and imagery come alive on the pages, what happens is not fair, and questions arise around how much of life is luck and how much influenced by intention. In this future world, no one can be trusted, though many seek trust.

Dystopian novels are often written in response to the social, economic, and political conditions at the time. Animal Farm by George Orwell was based on the Russian revolution of 1917; Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury was written during the McCarthy Era, and based on the threat of censorship in the United States; and Brave New World was based on scientific and technological advances being made at the time, and a society increasingly focused on the pursuit of leisure. These novels have played an important role in influencing people’s decisions, perceptions, and views of the present and future.

The Windup Girl is an important book for these reasons. It confronts some of the biggest political and environmental questions facing our world today, including climate change, food and water scarcity, a growing population, and genetic modification. These issues are being considered and debated in many countries around the world at the moment. Obama has announced a new climate change action plan, carbon markets are emerging in many countries, and carbon pricing now covers approximately 21 percent of global emissions. Recently, Monsanto declared they would drop approvals for a number of genetically modified crops in the European Union due to sustained protests, and there has been a renewed push to conserve more wild species of certain crops around the world, especially faced with climate change, to help secure genetic diversity.

The novel describes a future world where, ultimately, issues like man-made climate change have not been dealt with by previous generations. One of the major underlying themes in this book is the fact that we now have the power to decide what future we’d like to have.

We are nature. Our every tinkering is nature, our every biological striving. We are what we are, and the world is ours. We are its gods. Your only difficulty is your unwillingness to unleash your potential fully upon it.

The world is at a stage where we can still make choices, big decisions that will lead us down a certain path. We choose what potential we want to unleash on the world. The path we travel is still up to us.