The Windup Girl

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The Windup Girl
The Windup Girl
Hardcover edition
Author Paolo Bacigalupi
Cover artist Raphael Lacoste
Country United States
Language English
Genre Science fiction, biopunk
Publisher Night Shade Books
Publication date
September 1, 2009
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 361
ISBN 978-1-59780-158-4
Followed by Ship Breaker

The Windup Girl is a biopunk science fiction novel. The novel was Paolo Bacigalupi's debut novel and published by Night Shade Books on September 1, 2009. The novel was named as the ninth best fiction book of 2009 by TIME magazine,[1] and as the best science fiction book of the year in the Reference and User Services Association's 2010 Reading List.[2] This book is a 2010 Nebula Award[3] and a 2010 Hugo Award winner (tied with The City & the City by China Miéville for the Hugo Award), both for best novel.[4] This book also won the 2010 Compton Crook Award and the 2010 Locus Award for best first novel.


The Windup Girl is set in 23rd-century Thailand. Global warming has raised the levels of world's oceans, carbon fuel sources have become depleted, and manually wound springs are used as energy storage devices. Biotechnology is dominant and megacorporations like AgriGen, PurCal and RedStar (called calorie companies) control food production through 'genehacked' seeds, and use bioterrorism, private armies and economic hitmen to create markets for their products. Frequent catastrophes, such as deadly and widespread plagues and illness, caused by genetically modified crops and mutant pests, ravage entire populations. The natural genetic seed stock of the world's plants has been almost completely supplanted by those that are genetically engineered to be sterile.

The current monarch of Thailand is a child queen. The capital city is below sea level and is protected from flooding by levees and pumps. The three most powerful men in Thailand are the Somdet Chaopraya (regent for the child queen), the chief of the Environment Ministry General Pracha, and the chief of the Trade Ministry Akkarat.

Plot summary[edit]

Anderson Lake is an economic hitman and the AgriGen Representative in Thailand. He owns a kink-spring factory trying to mass-produce a revolutionary new model that will store gigajoules of energy. The factory is a cover for his real mission: discovering the location of the Thai seedbank. He leaves the running of the factory to his Chinese manager, Hock Seng, a refugee from the Malaysian purge of the ethnic Chinese. A businessman in his former life, Seng plots to regain his former glory even as he struggles to survive day to day as a refugee. He waits patiently for an opportunity to steal the kink-spring designs kept in Anderson's safe, and embezzles copiously.

Emiko is a "windup girl" (they refer to themselves as "New People"), a humanoid GM organism used as a slave, genetically programmed to seek and obey a master. Emiko has been abandoned in Thailand by her Japanese master, and as an illegal resident in Thailand is subject to summary execution or "mulching" if she is caught. Raleigh, a sex club owner, gives her some measure of safety by bribing the police to let her live, but at the price of forcing her to work in his club where she is routinely abused and sexually humiliated. Among other genetic modifications, Emiko has a genetically altered pore structure which makes her skin extremely smooth but prone to overheating, a life-threatening problem in the hot climate of Thailand. One of her customers tells her of the secret seedbank and a mysterious man named Gibbons. Anderson gleans this information from her and, in return, tells her about a refuge in the north of Thailand where people of Emiko's kind live together. This becomes fixated in her mind, and from then on she strives to pay off Raleigh and escape to this refuge.

Anderson's factory is destroyed by a rogue megodont (a GM elephant used to run the power train). Also destroyed are algae baths, which are critical to the manufacturing process, and whose spares are costly and must be smuggled into Thailand via dirigible. Anderson orders Hock Seng to fix up the factory as soon as possible, threatening him with the loss of his job if he does not do so. Hock Seng's job is made difficult by the fact that he has failed to bribe the customs officials, as he had embezzled the bribe money. Knowing that his time has come, he makes a money-for-plans deal with the Dung Lord, a gangster.

Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, an upright and courageous captain of the white shirts (the armed, enforcement wing of the Environment Ministry), intercepts the dirigible containing, among other things, Anderson's much needed spare tanks, and destroys the contraband. This raises the hackles of the white, foreign trading community in Thailand and they pressure Akkarat to make Jaidee back off. To "persuade" Jaidee, known as the Tiger of Bangkok for his muay thai skills and courage, and an icon among the white shirts, they kidnap his wife.

Jaidee submits and makes a public apology. False charges are made against him and he is condemned to monkhood for nine years. Unknown to Jaidee, his wife has already been murdered. A triumphant Anderson and his main collaborator, Richard Carlyle, negotiate with Akkarat for access to the seedbank and lowering of the trade barriers. Akkarat refuses, saying there are limits to his greed.

Jaidee, determined to track his wife's murderers, escapes from the monastery and infiltrates the Trade Ministry. He is caught, killed, and his mutilated body is deposited in front of the Environment Ministry. As the white shirts revere him as a hero, they declare him a martyr, and rise up against the Trade Ministry.

General Pracha appoints Lieutenant Kanya, Jaidee's protégé, as the new Captain and unleashes a reign of terror on Bangkok. Meanwhile, Mai, a child labourer in Anderson's factory, has discovered that her fellow workers are falling to a new plague that had previously made the algae tanks malfunction. She reports this to Hock Seng, who arranges to have the bodies disposed of surreptitiously. As the white shirts take control of Bangkok, he steals all of Anderson's petty cash, takes Mai with him and tries to escape. Meanwhile, through a chance encounter Anderson saved Emiko's life, and becomes infatuated with her.

Anderson discovers Hock Seng's flight and goes into hiding with Richard Carlyle. Kanya, who is Akkarat's mole, discovers the new plague and sets about trying to contain it. (We learn that years earlier Kanya had been rescued as a young girl by Akkarat when her own home village was destroyed in the course of containing a genehacked plague.) She reluctantly seeks help from Gibbons, who is revealed to be a renegade AgriGen scientist. Gibbons is a brilliant geneticist and the last hope for the Thai defense against the plagues. He easily identifies the new plague and gives clues to Kanya.

Anderson and Carlyle meet with Akkarat and the Somdet Chaopraya, who is the regent to the young Thai Queen and the most powerful person in all of Thailand. Anderson offers to supply a new strain of GM rice and a private army to repel the white shirts in exchange for access to the seedbank and lowering of the trade barriers. He also introduces the Somdet Chaopraya to Emiko. When the Somdet Chaopraya's acts prove too humiliating, Emiko snaps and kills the Somdet Chaopraya, Raleigh and eight other men. Then she seeks refuge with Anderson.

Because she has killed such a powerful man and all of his bodyguards, Akkarat assumes Emiko to be a military windup and accuses General Pracha of assassinating the Somdet Chaopraya. He also proceeds to arrest Anderson and Carlyle as suspects in the assassination conspiracy. Emiko escapes in the nick of time.

Kanya traces the origin of one of the plague victims to a village near Bangkok, and from information she gets there is able to identify Anderson's kink-spring factory as a possible source. She sterilizes the village with lye. Hock Seng fails to steal the kink-spring designs, so he decides to capture Emiko for ransom. He takes Mai with him.

Kanya is informed of the suspected assassination plot by her handler. Recognizing the harm the incident could cause, she visits the Japanese company that designed Emiko, learns of the true facts, and tries to explain it to Akkarat. But Akkarat has already decided to blame General Pracha for the assassination as a pretext for regime change and mobilizes his reserves to destroy Pracha and the white shirts. The capital is plunged into civil war. Anderson is released and discovers that he may have contracted the new plague.

Hock Seng encounters Emiko in Anderson's apartment and holds her at gunpoint. Anderson and Carlyle arrive at the same time. They make a deal: Hock Seng would be patronized by AgriGen and Emiko would remain with Anderson.

Eventually, Pracha and most of the top Environment Ministry men are killed. Akkarat, now all-powerful, appoints his spy Kanya as the chief of the Environment Ministry. He also opens up Thailand to the world, and grants AgriGen access to the seedbank. Kanya, who acts subdued at first, reneges and executes the AgriGen team in the seedbank. She then proceeds to move the seedbank to a safer place with the help of the monks. With the hidden arsenal in the seedbank, she orchestrates an uprising and coup d'état. She destroys the levees, flooding Bangkok. Bangkok's people and the capital relocate to the site of Ayutthaya, a previous Thai capital. There is now a new Tiger, a grim, unsmiling woman (Kanya), and it is implied that the Child Queen now reigns without a regent.

Hock Seng is let free by Kanya to leave Bangkok with Mai to start a new life, although we never learn if they manage to escape the doomed city. Akkarat becomes a monk to atone for his failure of protecting the capital. The plague slowly kills Anderson as Emiko nurses him through the agony. She is alone in the flooded city when Gibbons arrives with his androgynous (kathoey or "ladyboy") companion. He promises Emiko that he will use her DNA to engineer a new race of fertile New People, thus fulfilling her dream of living with her own kind.

Awards and honors[edit]

In September 2010, the novel won the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel category, tying with China Miéville's The City & the City.[4] In May 2010, the novel won the Nebula Award for Best Novel.[5] In 2010, the novel won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. In 2012 a translated version of the novel by Kazue Tanaka and Hiroshi Kaneko won a Seiun award for "Best Translated Long Fiction" at the 51st Japan Science Fiction Convention.[6] The German translation Biokrieg won the Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis in 2012.


Adam Roberts reviewed the book for The Guardian and concludes "when it hits its sweet-spot, The Windup Girl embodies what SF does best of all: it remakes reality in compelling, absorbing and thought-provoking ways, and it lives on vividly in the mind."[7]


  1. ^ Grossman, Lev (December 8, 2009). "The Top 10 Everything of 2009 – 9. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi". TIME. Time Inc. Retrieved January 22, 2010. 
  2. ^ "2010 Reading List announced". RUSA Blog. Reference and User Services Association. January 17, 2010. Retrieved January 22, 2010. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b Flood, Alison (September 6, 2010). "China Miéville and Paolo Bacigalupi tie for Hugo award". The Guardian. Retrieved September 9, 2010. 
  5. ^ Standlee, Kevin (May 15, 2010). "Nebula Awards Results". Science Fiction Awards Watch. Retrieved May 15, 2010. 
  6. ^ "Madoka Magica, Gundam: The Origin Win at Japan Sci-Fi Con". Anime news Network. 7 July 2012. Retrieved 7 July 2012. 
  7. ^ Roberts, Adam (December 18, 2010). "The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi – review". The Guardian. Retrieved December 24, 2010. 

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