Reading: Paolo Bacigalupi — The Windup Girl

Probably when this was first published, amidst all the noise about it, I picked it up and got through a few pages and put it back down, or at least I have a memory of that. This time, well, it was cheap and on the shelves at St George’s but honestly, I should have put it back down.

It’s won a lot of awards, a Nebula, a Hugo alongside China Miéville’s The City and the City, which while that isn’t one of my favourites, I far prefer and it’s probably a good counterpoint to why Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is a dodgy work of science-fiction despite seeming quite well-written and obviously appealing enough to snarf awards.

I’ll start with the lesser issue, which has been annoying me in such abominable works as Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, and even some of Charles Stross’ more recent stuff. I call it authenticityism, and it’s a plague on literature. It’s the idea that by getting everything right, all the science and setting and ‘world-building’, you make a good story. In its useful guise, it’s called continuity, and it’s really useful: it makes things coherent. But lately it seems to be manifesting as an obsessive fixation on pseudo-accuracy, that the science in the science-fiction makes sense, and is ‘true’ even at the expense of being comprehensible to the reader — Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Fractal Prince falls into this at times, whereas Miéville’s Embassytown doesn’t, despite being equally demanding — or in a hyper-correct location and setting; believability reified through the ceaseless application of detail, which is both in this book’s Bangkok, and Stephenson’s southern China city.

This authenticityism causes a particular sensation in me, that it’s not authentic at all. Stephenson’s city in China seems true in the same way that scraping detail from Google Maps and Street View, Wikipedia, querying locals found by way of blogs and other sources, images from Flickr, videos from YouTube and staring at This Other, willing it to be genuine can give a veneer of authority on a subject. But it’s more an authority like Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs, a Japan of Japan never visited, though entirely without the critical awareness of Barthes.

There’s a similarity in this writing method with the lot of internet trolls, who flame every small continuity or factual error, as though this scorched-earth correctness is necessary and renders the whole worthless. Possibly unsurprisingly, the writers who I find are most likely to fall into this style are white males who have some background in science or technology.

On to the major problem with this book, then. Oh, yes, I’ve read it. So much for not reviewing. Well, it’s in two parts, so I’ll dispense with one sharply. It’s reminds me a lot of John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, or other works by westerners set in the exotic, inscrutable Orient, in that everything Other is mentioned repeatedly until it becomes a blaring wall of noise against which the story is set. This could be partly another case of authenticityism, but I rather think that pointing Edward Saïd’s Orientalism at it would result in revealing something messy.

The main, fundamental, inescapable problem with The Windup Girl is that it is very much not work that’s good for women. It’s possible that the author genuinely believes he’s writing a work that is like a science-fiction reportage on the atrocious, beastial lives of women (of the genetically modified type, and of the trans type as embodied in two of the characters, one major — the windup girl of the title, and one minor, a plaything for a sleazy genetic engineer) in a third-world post-apocalypse Asian megalopolis, but in fact shows such a profound lack of imagination, empathy, or understanding of what a character who is female might be, that the only way he can illustrate this is through a similar blaring wall of noise comprised of degradation and rape.

It helps that this is so clear, because it also manifests insidiously in the place of the female characters — and there are quite a few. There are approximately five main characters (though one dies part-way through and hangs around till the end as a ghost), of which two are female, and we spend considerable time in all of their heads. The giveaway is that both the female characters are stripped of agency and autonomy, unlike the male characters. Kanya, despite performing the grande Coup d’état in the final scene, is never more than protégée to her dead captain, constantly at her side, judging, assessing, commenting on her actions. Of Emiko, the windup girl, she is (or at least she thinks she is) genetically programmed to obey her master, and even after killing her pimp moves directly on to the next great white saviour, even in the epilogue where she has arrived at some degree of selfhood. Other minor female characters are also there to be saved by a plethora of males, in fact I can’t think of a single female character whose role doesn’t circulate around a male.

Fundamentally, this is a work of a lack of imagination. The best Bacigalupi could do to represent a near-future dystopia is one where sexy, smooth-skinned, lithe and athletic, genetically engineered women are sex slaves, only fit to be saved by a heterosexual white alpha male from the west, who she of course happily fucks. And to underline just how dystopian this near-future is, she has to get raped. A lot. And Bacigalupi writes out pages of it with diligent authenticityism.

Paolo Bacigalupi — The Windup Girl
Paolo Bacigalupi — The Windup Girl