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I wasn't sure I was going to post this review, because this was not a good book. But world, you deserve to know exactly what I thought about this book.

also mild spoilers (but I will keep it to a minimum, and they will mostly be general, and also you won't read this book so that's okay)

I had no plans to read The Windup Girl. I am not even going to pretend towards any sense of bipartisanship or willingness to go in to it with an open mind. From the outset, I was confident that I would be really annoyed by The Windup Girl, and I only read it because I found out it was the Swancon Bookclub book and was so astounded that I needed to make sure I was correct.

Wow was I correct!

Usually when I read a book, I take notes so I can remember things later, so nobody can take offense at my reading and tell me I'm wrong. I had so many issues with this book I didn't even need to take notes, I can open it to any page and point to a problem I have with it. Okay, any double page.

Emiko, the titular Windup Girl, is of Japanese design and make. She is designed to serve and to please. She walks and moves in this stutter-start, I can't remember the exact words used but the description clearly evokes the geisha-walk. So here, in her characterisation and description, Bacigalupi is clearly using the stereotypes of the geisha girl. The novel is set in Thailand. As you may be aware Mei Hua, Thailand has a significant sex trade, it's pretty well-known. Did you know that Emiko, left behind by her owners in Thailand, finds work in a strip club? Emiko is introduced to us in chapter three, where another of the club's employees rapes her, at the behest of the customers. This rape scene is lovingly described in terms that are all about caressing and stroking and she comes to orgasm because that's what she's designed to do.

Let me draw a line for you from one to the other. She's Japanese, she's subservient, she's built to please; she lives in Tokyo and is part of the sex trade. This orientalist claptrap is just ridiculous. Helen Merrick, at the bookclub panel, suggested that perhaps Bacigalupi introduced these themes in order to interrogate them, but didn't quite manage to do so. I am not so kind, I don't think he had any intention of interrogating them, or he wouldn't have spent so much time so lovingly describing them.

It is a long time before any of the other female characters are really developed. Kanya is pretty cool, but her elevation to a major character is sudden and occurs about halfway through the novel, so I don't think we ever fully get to explore her. Aside from Kanya, they're mostly there for the plot, or as ciphers. They don't really develop their own stories. Even Mai is basically an adjunct to Hock Seng.

I really liked the point Helen Merrick made, which I hadn't actually realised at the time: these female characters are actually almost entirely removed of their agency. Although Kannika rapes Emiko at the behest of the customers (and therefore arguably not of her own agency) and this is lovingly described, when Emiko takes her revenge (trying not to really spoil) it fades to black. This really is an excellent illustration for me of why I don't think Bacigalupi actually intended to interrogate any of these issues at all, because this scene is pretty much where it's really obviously missing.

There are other characters; as was noted in the panel, mostly these characters are caricatures. In particular I'd like to note Gibbons, who is probably the only 100% horrible evil no shades of gray character in the novel. You know how we know this? Because he is grotesque, fat, diseased, and likes ladyboys. Ableist and transphobic tropes in order to illustrate moral decay in the novel. As I have said to others asking my opinion of the book, at least his trans partner was correctly gendered.

(also, I keep forgetting to mention, the Chinese trader is addicted to opium. Really? REALLY?!)

I think that these flaws are huge. There is almost no point to these characters; in addition, there is really no point to setting the novel in Thailand. Thailand in this novel is othered just like many of the characters, and at most point it feels like any old made up exotic back drop. There's very little about the setting that is really clearly a future Thailand, except from some mythology stuff. It could have been any old country, so why make it Thailand? Except I guess to make use of its sex trade issues WHY OH WHY. Some reviewers (okay, one commenter on one review) mentioned that it could be because Thailand is the only country that was never colonised by some white dude, which, okay, but that doesn't change the fact that it's still totally The Other.

Okay there were some things that were quite good about this novel, though an aside: discussing the good things was forced upon us at the panel, and at the beginning we were told that the book had issues but hopefully we'd come out on the positive side. I didn't enjoy feeling like I was being pressured to put aside my issues. I realise this is coming in the middle of a review that started off I WAS NEVER GOING TO LIKE THIS BOOK, but as always I have issues when people try to tell me that I should ignore a text's massive issues because it's fiction, or for enjoyment. Not necessarily that that is what happened in the panel, but it really felt forced.

I really like Bacigalupi's writing style. I think his turn of prose is fun, and I enjoyed reading the text (not so much the conversations). I would certainly at least attempt other things written by him, though with caution. I liked the world building. I love that he's looking at a GMO future what if, I think that it's so important for our SFF to look at these issues (and I think GMO issues are really critical right now). I particularly liked the way the text looked at whether humans need to be modified, in the way that crops do. I also really liked the idea of the kink springs, that store joules of energy which is released as they are wound. I love the idea of the cheshires.

But some nice ideas aren't enough for this to get over the line for me. This is not a recommendation for this book at all.

I am linking to two reviews, but google gives you many more: one by Jhameia Goh and one by Niall Harrison


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