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Kiln People
Beth Meacham, David Brin

The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi I just realized something, neologisms - like bow ties - are cool. Explaining made-up words in a glossary or through infodumps is uncool. Nowadays sf authors seem to delight in making up new words and leave the readers to figure out their meaning through context. Depending on the skill of the author this can be an exercise in frustration or a lot of fun for the readers who like a bit of challenge.

Plenty of newly minted words in The Windup Girl, plus lots of Thai words which are equally unexplained except via context. This then is not an easy read but for the patient readers who persevere it is very rewarding. As a Thai national I at least have an advantage in comprehending the Thai words and cultural references. I have nothing but admiration for non-Thai readers who can figure everything out without any help from Google.

At this point I'd like to do a Shelfari style "Ridiculously Simplified Synopsis" but it this is a complex story with various plot strands that does not facilitate such a thing. This is my single paragraph effort:

In the 23rd century the entire world is in decline. Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, is under constant threat of sinking under sea, thanks to global warming and rising sea level. Petroleum sources are finally exhausted and neighboring countries have fallen from plagues and illness unleashed by bioengineering. The titular windup girl (an artificial human) seeks her freedom from constant abuse, an old Chinese immigrant tries to restore his fortune, a Environment Ministry enforcer tries to protect his beloved city against all odds, and a western factory owner is on a secret mission to find Thailand's most precious property, seeds that can withstand the diseases unleashed by scientists.


Beside being a cautionary tale of possibly impending ecological catastrophe the book is not short on human drama. The theme of man's inhumanity to man (and artificial humans) is prevalent. Though by no means the center of the story (in spite of the title) the abuse and degradation of Emiko the windup girl will have a lot of readers flinching. The insurmountable odds against Jaidee the Environment Ministry enforcer and his protégé is all too believable and has a visceral impact. The tenacity of Hock Seng the old Chinese immigrant is equally involving, the plight of the other protagonist Anderson the factory owner is less engaging for me as he is a bit of a rat.

The worldbuilding is very well done and was totally immersed in the settings and the story. This one feels particularly close to home as I am living here in Bangkok. Paolo Bacigalupi must have spent considerable time here to have such an in depth knowledge of my country, people and culture (lots of research also helped no doubt). The previous book I read set in Bangkok is [b:Bangkok 8|706011|Bangkok 8 (Sonchai Jitpleecheep #1)|John Burdett|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1388333732s/706011.jpg|692291] by John Burdett, I did not get very far with it because I felt the author does not understand Thai language and culture as he seems to think he does, some inaccurate usage of slangs and Thai pop culture really took me out of the story*. Mr. Bacigalupi does a much better job here, I am very impressed with his attention to details (though the name Jaidee does not sound authentic to me**, artistic licence I guess).

The spring technology which power most machines and devices is a very interesting concept, the genetically engineered Cheshire cats based on Alice in Wonderland is wonderfully eerie. The environmental disasters caused by GMOs is worrying if the world is going that way. I am flattered that the author chose to set his story in Thailand and depicts it as one of the few countries still standing against global blight, probably more from artistic reasons than projection from current state of affairs. In any case his 23rd century Thailand is no utopia.

This is a wonderful novel full of caution, passion and pathos.

I wonder if windup girls dream of electric sheep?

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*No disrespect to [a:John Burdett|30860|John Burdett|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1275569227p2/30860.jpg] who seems to be highly rated by his readers, I would love to hear from other Thai rteader sof his books.

** Jaidee is a common word which means "kind" or "generous" but I have never met anybody with that name.

Adendum

I was going to write something about this but it completely slipped my mind. A lot of readers are likely to dismiss the ghosts in The Windup Girl as imaginary, especially of Jaidee. The thing is a huge proportion of Thais believe in ghosts and other spirits, may be 50% or more. This may make us seem like silly bastards but it's a deeply ingrained cultural thing I guess.

Personally I don't believe in no ghosts but I am used to being around people who do. Any way, I am not sure whether Bacigalupi intends that Jaidee is an actual ghost or a manifestation of Kanya's conscience. It's not as obvious as it seems.

There is a Thai idiom about superstition that translates as "if you don't believe it, don't disrespect it". What it actually means is "Think you are so modern and sophisticated eh? If some weird supernatural shit happen to you don't come crying to me!"