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This book already got the 2010 Locus Award for Best First Novel and the Nebula Award for Best Novel, so The Windup Girl may as well be the absolute favorite for this year's Hugo Award for Best Novel.
As I said in an earlier post, this is a good year for the Best Novel Hugos. All the competitors are excellent novels, and this book is no exception, on the contrary. Additionally, Paolo Bacigalupi had already showed us some glimpses of this universe in his collection Pump Six, with the stories The Calorie Man and Yellow Card Man.
The Windup Girl is a post-apocalytical story with lots of biopunk and cyberpunk references. We are taken to the end of the twenty-second century, when, after devastating "calorie plagues" such as blister rust, cibiscosis, and genehack weevil have pretty much exterminated most of vegetable life on Earth, America and other former superpowers are relegated to the background of political and economical power play. In fact, only the US are mentioned in the novel; we can only imagined what is going on with the rest of the so-called First World in a moment when there is no energy left even to power airplanes to cross the world - globalization as we know is over, and with it all global traffic of people and goods.
In this bleak scenario, there are many factions: the Grahamites, an America-based religious group which follows the Holy Scripture focusing mainly on Noah and the Flood, and are against the slow but steadily incoming return of global communication and traffic (this time via dirigibles).
Other group are the generippers, a caste of scientists that are the only ones, in truth, that may be really able to bring about a resurrection of the green. In the past few generations, they have been able to create new animals (as the megodonts, huge elephant-like beasts reminiscent of prehistorical mammoths and very useful as beasts of burden but also very difficult to tame and, therefore, very deadly) and new species of vegetables and fruits, plague-free.
And there is another groups yet, anathema to the entire world except for Japan - the New People, or, as they are usually called, the windups. Artificial human life. Used as soldiers in Vietnam and pleasure dolls in Japan, the windups are Bacigalupi's replicants - more sophisticated on the one hand, even more enslaved on the other (by their programming, which compels them to do their master's bidding and also by their physical needs: they don't sweat, so when in a tropical country they must consume awesome quantities of ice water to survive.)
That is the case of Emiko, who had a relatively good life in Japan working as secretary for her master and is suddenly left to fend for herself in Thailand, where she ends up in prostitution. She must endure the humiliation because she can't even go outside the whorehouse where she lives, because if she does it, she will be destroyed by the white shirts, the petty and corrupty bureaucrats who rule Thailand with an iron hand.
Thailand, by the way, is the country where the action happens in this novel. Everything hangs in the balance there, from generipping to the future of the windups. For instance, Emiko learns from American entrepreneur Anderson Lake that there is a refuge up in the hills for a whole community of rogue windups, and that gives her a reason to live.
Meanwhile, other players in this Great Game of sorts are trying to survive as best as they can. The former Chinese-millionaire-turned-refugee Hock Seng, now employee of Lake, turns against his employer and seeks the dubious help of the Dung Lord, a master of the underworld, in order to sell a much improved kind of kink-springs, a mechanical device invented to replace electrical sources of energy with kinetic power when the Contraction happened generations ago. Seng wants pretty much what Lake, Emiko, and many of the other characters in the novel want: a way out. A way out of Thailand, or a way out of their miseries in a hard world.
Nobody is innocent, no character is a good guy, but at the same time almost nobody of them is necessarily an evil one. The Windup Girl feels like a future Casablanca without the Nazis and with the omnipresent White Shirts, and the menace of the radical Green Headbands, who are always referred to but never really appear, and who destroy mercilessly not only windups, but also "calorie men", that is, scientists, generippers, or pretty much anyone who works for a genetic enhancement company. Paolo Bacigalupi has no mercy whatsoever with his characters: he pushes them to the edge - and that's the way it should be if you want good literature.