Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, presents a vision of a world criticized by binary systems: global corporations versus national governments; natural biology versus genetic enrichment; and progress Versus fundamentalism. The Windup Girl, which won both the 2010 Nebula and Hugo Awards for Best Novel, is set in a vision of Thailand in the 23rd Century. Thailand is Simultaneously the trading post and warring ground for a host of international forces like Thai, Japanese, Pakistani and American characters representing corporations, governments and tradesmen intersect across Bangkok at all levels of power. But Universal though it may be, the Thai kingdom is not symbolic of the mythology of 20th and 21st Century globalization: a narrative of growth, travel and expansion.
Two Hundred years later, Bacigalupi predicts the world in a state of shrinkage. Massive Agricultural corporations call Agrigen and war over production of a decreasing Global food supply. Bio-modified foods have almost entirely interchanged organic food Stocks, and crop disease has destroyed even many of these engineered crops. Global Warming has tripled the swell of the oceans, and Bangkok now sits below sea level, Protected by a series of locks and levees built around the city. Thailand has a natural seed Bank, kept hidden from the giant calorie companies that are desperate to mine its stock And open up Thailand’s limiting trade fares to Western corporations.
That crop shortages and corporate misconduct inspire the story.Bacigalupi was certainly aware of these protest and shortage, and has said in interviews that the Deep water horizon (BP) spill in the Gulf of Mexico became an important way of thinking about corporate influence over a globalized world as he wrote The Windup Girl: “When you look at something like BP, it’s a storyline that shouldn’t have existed. They couldn’t see that the step-by-step actions were gonna cascade into something much bigger than themselves. I feel like that really applies to almost all of our environmental problems. I get on an airplane and fly out here to Boston — that has consequences bigger and more complex than I can understand. The BP thing — in the assumed storyline, we’re going to drill down, we’re going to get some oil, and everybody’s going to make some money — suddenly becomes something else, the storyline veers off completely. And that moment where the story veers off and you realize we didn’t actually understand our own story, that’s what’s fascinating.
The fear of corporate power is an expression of anxiety over that realization he describes of not knowing our own story. In these recent corporate dystopias, production and consumption are encouraged at rapid speed, trampling the natural world and the climate as everything expands until whole human populations are forced to contract when resources are exhausted. As Bacigalupi said in a separate interview: “It all feels as though there’s something going on in the zeitgeist and because of it, the themes in The Windup Girl resonate with people […] global warming and [genetically modified] foods apparently resonate strongly, as, I think, does a certain unease over where we’re headed in terms of our wealth and prosperity”. The story is told from multiple perspectives, though most frequently in the voice of Anderson Lake, seemingly a manager at a giant kink-spring plant, but actually a corporate spy for AgriGen trying to locate the seed bank.
Everywhere Anderson looks, he sees the contracting of the world: “The world truly is shrinking again. A few dirigible and clipper rides and Anderson clatters through darkened streets on the far side of the planet. It’s astounding. In his grandparents” time, even the commute between an old Expansion suburb and a city center was impossible. His grandparents used to tell stories of exploring abandoned suburbs, scavenging for scrap and leavings of whole sprawling neighborhoods that were destroyed in the petroleum Contraction”. (Bacigalupi 114-115)There is an important distinction to be made here. Many writers describe the process of globalization as shrinking of the world – of knitting different places together through travel and technology. Maxwell Garnett, Secretary of the League of Nations, famously said that in 1924, New York was effectively closer to London than Scotland was to it one hundred years earlier.
That is, that technology of travel had made the world a smaller place. And there is some of that sentiment in the quote above; but when Bacigalupi writes about a “Contraction” he doesn’t just mean “the compression of the world and the intensification of the consciousness of the world as a whole” to use Roland Robertson’s famous phrase. Instead, he is describing a world wracked by over-consumption and overuse of its resources and people. The world is shrinking in this novel because it cannot sustain the lives of its inhabitants anymore.The binaries that Haraway sees in the world are immediately evident in The Windup Girl, as a collection of oppositional powers argue for control over the Thai kingdom and its remaining natural resources. Working with Anderson and the agribusinesses is Trade Minister Akkarat, who wishes to sell the seedbank and open the kingdom to heavy Western trade.
On the other side, General Pracha runs the Environment Ministry and enforces the kingdom’s strict environmental laws and tariffs with the help of Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, Captain of the Environment Ministry’s armed enforcement militia. Finally, as Thailand is still seemingly a monarchy, the Somdet Chaopraya is the Regent to the child Queen and the most powerful person in Bangkok. These men stand in for historical forces working eagerly to ensure their control over the post-Expansion globe. Anderson represents corporate supremacy and the preying of the world” resources. It’s no surprise that everyone in the Thai kingdom, even partners like Akkarat,Views Anderson, PurCal and AgriGen not as titans of industry, but as bioterrorists and capitalist overlords: they are the future robber barons, over-harvesting the world. And while they try to present themselves as progressive agents for a globalized world, Anderson describes numerous instances in which calorie company farming and food engineering led to food shortages and massive riots: Meanwhile, General Pracha and Jaidee lean heavily on the mythology of Bangkok as a holy city and the monarchy as holy institution. They see themselves as standing up against a tide of corporate hegemony, even if it is a losing battle: “But it hurts. They hunt and beg for scraps of knowledge from abroad, scavenge like cheshires for survival. So much knowledge sits inside the Midwestern Compact. When a promising genetic thinker arises somewhere in the world, they are cowed and bullied and bribed to work with the other best and brightest in Des Moines or Changsha.
It takes a strong researcher to resist a PurCal or AgriGen or RedStar […But] we are alive. We are alive when whole kingdoms and countries are gone. When Malaya is a morass of killing.When Kowloon is underwater. When China is split and the Vietnamese are broken and Burma is nothing but starvation”. (Bacigalupi 214)Anderson, AgriGen and PurCal argue throughout the novel that the Thai Kingdom is old-fashioned: ardently guarding its identity as a protectionist nation while the rest of the world has opened itself to some cosmopolitan ideal of culture and trade. GeetaKapur theorizes that, “From where I speak there is still ground for debate about the nation-state. With all the calumny it has earned, it may be the only political structure that can protect the people of the third world from the totalitarian system that oligopolies establish – ironically, through the massive state power of the advanced nations” (193).Pracha, Jaidee and others view Bangkok as the last refuge from corporate oligopoly. As The Windup Girl proceeds, these tense binary forces create a gap in the Thai Kingdom. The relationship between the advanced and original – between engineered calorie substitutes and a natural seed bank; between global capital forces and tribal extremists; between monarchy and transnational corporations; between a dying human race and the cyborgs it constructs—is the gyre that widens and widens.
The gap between the forces of expansion and contraction chew up the center.Bacigalupi dramatizes the destabilization of the systems of power he describes by focusing on places that might be typically overlooked or sectioned-off from historical seats of power: Fly-over America, a smaller nation on the Indochina Peninsula, the rusted slums of Bangkok. And yet the most aggressive destablizer in the entire novel is, ironically, a cyborg who spends much of the plot being violently abused and controlled. Emiko is a Japanese “Windup” a genetically modified humanoid used as a slave and programmed to obey her owner. Windups, who refer to themselves as New People, are illegal in Thailand, and Emiko is forced to work for a sex club owner (Raleigh) who bribes the police to ignore her presence. Emiko’s pores are modified to make her skin particularly smooth and cool to the touch, meaning she overheats easily and must stay inside during the day to avoid the sweltering Thailand climate. For most of the book, her humiliation and abuse is acute, as she is forced to perform degrading shows at the club and to sleep with whomever Raleigh directs her to.
At the same time, as the main draw at Bangkok’s most famous sex club, she encounters a host of powerful people looking for tactful sex, including the Somdet Chaopraya and Anderson, who becomes obsessed with Emiko and tells her of a secret refuge in Northern Thailand where Windups live free. Raleigh promises Emiko that she can work to buy her freedom and travel to the refuge, but it quickly becomes obvious that he never plans to free her. That realization, coupled with her continued degradation at the club, culminates in a dramatic scene in which Emiko ignores her programming and kills the Somdet and his men in the club: “Her first is very fast. Raleigh-san’s throat is soft. […] By the time Raleigh hits the floor, Emiko is already bolting across the room, toward the VIP door and the man who hurt her most [Chaopraya].
The man who sits and laughs with his friends and thinks nothing of the pain he inflicts. She slams into the door. Men look up with surprise. Heads turn, mouths open to cry out. The bodyguards are reaching for their spring guns, but all of them are moving too slow. None of them are New People”. (Bacigalupi 279)The slaughter at Raleigh’s club sets the final third of the plot into motion. Akkarat assumes that Anderson snuck a military-grade Windup into Thailand to initiate a revolution. General Pracha believes that Akkarat killed the Somdet in a proposal to take over the country and open it to Western trade. Anderson refuses to believe that Emiko, programmed to be courteous and modest, is even capable of killing eight men. But the slaughter awakens new powers in Emiko – or rather, allows her to finally see the power she always had and she slips into the city at night with newfound strength, speed and confidence. The cyborg comes to represent a new, subaltern power in Thailand. In so many ways, Bacigalupi portrays Bangkok as a living entity. Even the characters who mythologize the city as a holy city of souls seem to recognize it as a place that can almost actualize its teeming personalities: the streets and peoples, ports and temples join together to create a force that can seemingly swallow up the very men who seek to rule it. Once Emiko lashes out, she becomes an extension of the city, moving throughout Bangkok organically even as the streets are overflowing with men who seek to destroy her: “She turns back and smiles at him, seems about to say something, but instead she plunges over the balcony’s edge and disappears into the blackness […] Below, there is nothing. No person, no scream, no thud, no complaints from the streets as she splatters across the ground. Nothing only emptiness, as though the night had swallowed her completely”. (Bacigalupi 269)Emiko moves effortlessly throughout the city because, as Haraway argues, the cyborg’s power lies in its liminal nature.
If one is too few, and two is too many, the cyborg exists somewhere in between. She glides through the night streets with ease because portals and passageways, spaces of transition between typical locuses of power and authority, are the in-between spaces she has always occupied. In the power space after the Somdet’s death, Anderson and Akkarat launch a rebellion and defeat General Pracha’s environmental militia. The novel ends on the day Akkarat and Anderson formally take control of the country, when Pracha’s Captain, Kanya, blows up the levees, preferring to flood Bangkok than give it over to foreign control. Emiko, quite literally, is the force that destabilizes the country and initiates a series of coups and revolutions.