Book Club Questions: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen’s Calorie Man in Thailand. Under cover as a factory manager, Anderson combs Bangkok’s street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history’s lost calories. There, he encounters Emiko…

Emiko is the Windup Girl, a strange and beautiful creature. One of the New People, Emiko is not human; instead, she is an engineered being, creche-grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich in a chilling near future in which calorie companies rule the world, the oil age has passed, and the side effects of bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.

What happens when calories become currency? What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits, when said bio-terrorism’s genetic drift forces mankind to the cusp of post-human evolution? Award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi delivers one of the most highly acclaimed science fiction novels of the twenty-first century.

My friend and I both read The Water Knife by this author a couple years ago as our “book based entirely on its cover” category filler. (The hardcover had one of the most beautiful covers I have ever seen.) I was wonderfully impressed with that story, which I probably would never have read if I had seen the synopsis! This time my friend and I decided to read Bacigalupi’s first novel, The Windup Girl, which also happened to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards. Much like The Water Knife, this book can boast of extensive worldbuilding, a sometimes horrifyingly realistic plot structure, and an alarming vision of Earth’s future. Unlike The Water Knife, there were some features that were troubling – most glaringly, the way in which the titular character is portrayed, which may be a dealbreaker for some readers. Nonetheless, it was certainly an interesting read that provided plenty of conversation, and it will no doubt stick with me for a long time to come, just like Bacigalupi’s second novel.

Discussion questions below the cut!

Like many novels set in foreign countries with non-English-speaking characters, Paolo Bacigalupi frequently uses Thai, Mandarin, and Japanese terms throughout The Windup Girl. Do you think these terms were used appropriately and effectively, or did you ever find yourself frustrated by their use?

Bacigalupi is slow to unpack his world-building, much like many other popular sci-fi authors. Sometimes, he even leaves information out entirely, such as what happened to China (something bad, obviously) or the precise details of what happened in Malay outside of Hock Seng’s piecemeal memories. Did Bacigalupi’s limited deliverance of information work for you, or did you end up feeling confused at any point? Would you have done anything differently? Why do you think Bacigalupi chose to hold back certain information from the reader?

Emiko and Kanya are the two main female characters of this novel–and, really, the only two women who get any significant time on the page. How did you feel about their portrayal, specifically in regards to their being female? Did they have as much agency and individuality as the main male characters?

Emiko’s greatest weakness is that she is genetically programmed to desire a master. Her own struggle to break free of her desire for hierarchy could easily be seen as a small-scale version of the book’s larger story of future Bangkok’s tug-of-war between Environment and Trade. Kanya encapsulates this struggle in her own hopelessly twisted relationship with the two ministries, at last leading the phii of Jaidee to reassure her, “We all have our patrons and our loyalties.” Who or what are Emiko and Kanya’s masters at the beginning of the novel? How about at the end? Do you feel their need for a master is at all tied to the economic system in which they live?

We are often reminded of the possibility that windups could surpass humanity – if only they were able to overcome their programmed flaws, and also gain the ability to reproduce. Finally, at the end of the novel, Gibbons suggests that he may be able to give Emiko these opportunities, opening the door for windups to gain equal footing and perhaps eventually win out over the “original” humans. Do you feel that windups taking over from humans would be a positive or negative occurrence? Why?

Do you feel that Kanya made the correct decision in executing the AgriGen representatives or do you think Akkarat’s decision to open the Kingdom to AgriGen would have been more beneficial for the country than Kanya’s isolationist policy at this point in time? Do the extreme circumstances of this post-apocalyptic world influence your answer in any way? Why or why not?

If you read the two associated short stories: Do you feel the short stories changed your view of the story or its characters in any way? The Windup Girl was written following the short stories “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man.” Did these original short stories have similar or different themes from the novel? Do you feel Bacigalupi improved upon the ideas of the short stories by expanding them into a larger work, or do you feel they were ideas best suited to a smaller format?

The structure of The Windup Girl is somewhat unusual, as none of the main characters have a straightforward step-by-step story trajectory. Instead, their plans and schemes are constantly interrupted by larger events outside their control, requiring them to adjust their means of achieving their goals–or even change the goals themselves–with nearly every chapter. Did you enjoy this structure, or find it frustrating? How do you think Bacigalupi was trying to use this structure to convey the larger point of his story?

It would be difficult to say this book had a happy ending, especially in terms of typical Western plot structure. Do you feel that any of the main characters ended the book with what we would call a happy ending? Do you feel that any of the main characters ended the book with a sense of satisfaction? Resolution? Release? What emotions did you yourself experience at the novel’s ending, and were you satisfied with them?

If you read The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi: Did you see any similarities between The Water Knife and The Windup Girl in terms of style, structure, setting, or message? What do you think we might expect from future Bacigalupi novels?

If you use these questions to shape an online discussion post of your own, please link back and give credit.

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