Fantasy Fiction

The Windup Girl

I don’t normally review books that I haven’t finished, and I rarely review books that I didn’t like. I reckon people don’t need to hear about books they shouldn’t read; recommendations are much more fun.

But I have to make an exception for Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. I almost never stop reading a book once I’ve started. I think the last one was Breaking Dawn. But, like with the fourth Twilight book, I was just so disgusted with the themes of The Windup Girl that I had to put it aside for my own sanity and blood pressure levels.

The Windup Girl won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel, which is kind of a big deal. But the fact that this book has got the entire sci-fi community behind it only confirms to me that science fiction is a massive boys’ club, where the treatment of female characters is secondary to pretty much anything else.

Despite having many POV characters, the Windup Girl has only one prominent female character, the titular Windup Girl Emiko. She is, to put it bluntly, a sexbot, engineered by scientists to be pleasing to her male owners, from her impractically small pores that lead her to overheat if she doesn’t eat ice to her compulsion to follow everyone’s instructions, even when she desperately does not want to. Emiko has human dignity, human emotions, feels fear and pain. And the first time we see her, we are treated to a graphic group rape scene, which is so detailed that it seems almost voyeuristic in nature.

Emiko is also the only Japanese character in the book. The entire series seems built around a concept of “exotic Asia,” with random Malaysian, Japanese and Chinese words thrown into the prose, and Emiko is the worst example. She is a revolution in both technology and subservience, enjoyed by men in the book as a curious foreign toy. She speaks in somewhat broken English, and is, in short, the walking, talking embodiment of perverse stereotypical fantasies of Japanese women. Perhaps she grows as a character over the course of the book. Perhaps she gains her freedom. It’s possible. But I will not be reading further to find out.

It’s also possible, of course, that Bacigalupi is aware of all the problematic elements of Emiko’s character. It’s possible that he’s using her to critique these elements of society, or to show how the collapse of society also leads to the horrific mistreatment of women. If that’s the case, he seriously missed the mark. Emiko is as much of an object in the narrative as she is to the characters in the story. Like Emiko’s “clients,” who come to her even as they’re horrified by her foreignness and semi-robotic nature, the narrative seems to revel in watching her pain and abuse, even as it acknowledges that it should really feel that way. It’s perverse, and it’s disturbing, and the fact that the book was so highly praised makes me incredibly suspicious of what science fiction critics value in their books in general.

Combine this with the fact that, in the 100 pages I read, the plot didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and I couldn’t connect with, like or understand any of the POV characters, and I really have to wonder why the book got so much praise.

8 Comments

  1. Sara

    August 13, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    I did finish it, and it was problematic the entire way through. I get the feeling that the author’s intention was to critique the culture of Asian exoticism and female objectivism, but I just don’t think he had the skills to do it. Showing a woman being mistreated is NOT an automatic critique of that action. Emiko does eventually free herself, and a second female character becomes prominent, but the book never recovers from its overall /rapey-ness/ and the fact that one of its “heroes” is one of the men using Emiko for her sex.

  2. Sara

    August 13, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    I also want to add that just from a sci-fi perspective, this book doesn’t add anything to discussions or imaginings of post-biological sentience or personhood… so I’m not sure WHAT it has going for it.

  3. Jorge Lourenço

    February 26, 2013 at 7:18 pm

    Hey, Rihannon.

    I think it’s a pity you disliked the book. Actually, I loved the Emiko character. Not only does she free herself and become a central element in the plot, she is a great character. About the submission and being treated like an object… well, she is a “windup”, a “New Person”. They are treated like trash in Thailand because their country sees their concepction as something unholy. That’s their reaction to all windups, including males.

    Also, I think the book brings some innovation to sci-fi because of it’s setting, a post-consumption of almost all of Earth’s resources and terrible enviroment changes, resulting in a society that struggles to return to it’s former glory – the lost eden, as they call it. I really liked the world of methane light bulbs, kinetic energy and genetical modifications. I didn’t like a thing or two in the book, it’s not perfect, but I don’t think it was sexist. Specially because, later, a female character gets the lead of the book.

    (ps.: sorry for possible gramatic errors, English is not my natural language)

    1. Julia

      December 14, 2016 at 6:34 pm

      It is a shame she didn’t finish it because I’m sure she’d love the ending, where Emiko finally becomes a real woman when Gibson shows up to grant her the ability to procreate. Like Pinocchio finally becoming a real boy except of course the only thing that completes a woman is motherhood. Not sexist story telling at all.

  4. Kate

    May 23, 2014 at 5:56 am

    I know this is an old post but I want to comment because I loved this book, including from a feminist perspective.

    Firstly, how can you read the first 100 pages and conclude that Bacigalupi “missed the mark” in terms of showing the mistreatment of Emiko is problematic, considering that the climactic action of the novel occurs because Emiko realizes she is in fact “optimal” and fights back against her oppressors? In the end, she outlasts everyone (because they either die or leave the city) and it is implied that a generipper will help her pass on her genes and create a whole race of New People. Sorry for the spoilers but… sort of important to the interpretation of the story.

    Secondly, Kanya becomes captain and takes over as a POV character. She is a smart, competent woman who is certainly not exoticized or exploited.

    I also take issue with this “The entire series seems built around a concept of “exotic Asia,” with random Malaysian, Japanese and Chinese words thrown into the prose”

    As someone who lives in Asia, the accuracy and understanding of the setting and culture was the best part. Writing about non-western cultures isn’t automatically wrong.

    1. Rhiannon

      May 26, 2014 at 11:51 am

      Writing about non-western cultures isn’t automatically wrong, but there is a trend of writing about “pan Asia,” where all Asian cultures are thrown together into one homogenous blob.

      Honestly, I read this book about two years ago now and don’t remember it well, so I can’t really dispute your points. But as far as I remember it, I found the description of Emiko’s rape graphic in an incredibly uncomfortable way, as though the reader were also invited to enjoy it. Perhaps the author introduced this only to subvert it later on, but it made for an incredibly disturbing reading experience that didn’t feel redeemable.

  5. Anna

    February 3, 2016 at 6:19 pm

    Thanks for this review. I read the whole book for book club, and had a really hard time getting through all of Emiko’s chapters. The book has massive potential, and there were things I liked about it. But, as you said, the fact that it won so many awards is incredibly disheartening to female Sci-fi fans. It’s a not so gentle reminder that female characters do not matter.

  6. Suki McFarland

    February 9, 2016 at 2:45 pm

    Hi Rhiannon,

    Thank you so much for this review. While there is a second POV female character later in the story, I too found Emiko’s characterisation but sexist and racist. While the author may have been trying to subvert the damaging stereotype of the sexualised, submissive Japanese women, in my view he did not succeed. The rape scene which you spoke of was topped by an even more graphic and brutal rape scene later. His writing of Emiko came across as voyeuristic and as though he was catering towards that specific male fantasy. Not only this, but the fact he set he book in Thailand yet chose to focus on a Western Protagonist was in very poor taste. I am not Asian, so I do feel like I am not the best person to critique the possible racism of the novel, but Emiko’s character was truly mistreated in my mind,

What do you think?