The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl We don’t nor­mally dis­cuss works of fic­tion here, so why make an excep­tion for Paolo Bacigalupi’s book, The Windup Girl?

I was a big sci­ence fic­tion fan as a teen­ager, though I don’t think I’d credit that with choos­ing a sci­entific career, but once I was spend­ing all my days (and nights) in the lab, I didn’t read any more sci­ence fic­tion. I got back into this genre a few years ago when I belatedly dis­covered the new wave of cyber­punk writ­ing from the 1980’s. While the glory days of cyber­punk have now faded, the injec­tion of energy into the sci-fi genre has per­sisted, and Paolo Bacigalupi is one of the inheritors.

The Windup Girl presents a dysto­pian vis­ion of a blighted future when human his­tory is defined in two peri­ods, the Expansion and the post-energy crash Contraction. Without fossil energy reserves to fight them, humans are strug­gling to sur­vive on a much hot­ter Earth dev­ast­ated by plagues of both anim­als and plants. Most spe­cies have dis­ap­peared and the few humans that remain use genetic manip­u­la­tion in a des­per­ate struggle to stay ahead of rampant plant patho­gens con­stantly threat­en­ing to elim­in­ate the last remain­ing mem­bers of the spe­cies. Calorie wars and energy star­va­tion, both per­sonal and indus­trial, are a con­stant threat. Slavery is illegal but banks are allowed to own up to one third of a per­son, mort­gaged in order to sur­vive their debt to the mul­tina­tional cal­orie mono­pol­ies — AgriGen, PurCal, U-Tex. Crops are known by their ver­sion num­bers as each year’s new vari­ant is pro­duced to attempt to stay ahead of dev­ast­at­ing dis­eases such as blister rust. One fam­ily which has sur­vived rel­at­ively unscathed are the night­shades — chil­lies, auberges, toma­toes, pota­toes, tobacco.

This is a book rich with ideas. Economically, the battle­ground is between glob­al­isa­tion and the hyper­loc­al­ism teach­ings of Niche theo­logy. Much of the sci­ence is wacky, e.g. the ther­mo­dy­nam­ics of energy gen­er­a­tion and stor­age. And there are much bet­ter writers out there than Bacigalupi (turn to Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House for a tour de force night­mare of nan­o­tech­no­logy ter­ror­ism, for example). But the ideas in The Windup Girl are worth the read. Let’s hope the more benign ver­sion of our biotech future pub­lished by Annals of Botany is closer to real­ity than Bacigalupi’s version.


Warning: This book con­tains strong sexual con­tent which might upset some read­ers — be warned!


Paolo Bacigalupi. The Windup Girl, Orbit, ISBN: 0356500535

AJ Cann. ORCID 0000-0002-9014-3720

Alan Cann is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Leicester and formerly Internet Consulting Editor for AoB.

2 Responses

  1. Ed Rybicki says:

    I thor­oughly enjoyed this book — and the concept of bioen­gin­eered crops res­ist­ing bioen­gin­eered plagues (arms race GT, any­one?). We may have already had a couple of incid­ences of hi-tech agri­cul­tural sab­ot­age, if you believe people who would prefer to be unnamed (think: TYLCV, pos­sibly, and dis­in­form­a­tion about occur­rence of par­tic­u­lar vir­uses in bana­nas, for example); I am sure sev­eral labs have hyped-up vir­uses knock­ing about.

    Which is why we work on engin­eered res­ist­ance in maize to par­tic­u­lar viruses.…

  2. Great read, def­in­itely agree with the ‘rich with ideas’ com­ment, I per­son­ally loved the idea of the kink-springs, it really got me think­ing about altern­at­ive energy sources and the cur­rent syn­thetic bio­logy approaches being taken by sci­ent­ists to make sus­tain­able car­bon neutral/negative power a real­ity. Hopefully this book’ll inspire a few (train­ing) sci­ent­ists and more to work toward a sus­tain­able future where food and energy secur­ity isn’t such a big issue!