Food, as any fan of the Civilization games knows, is everything. In the real world today, it’s terrifying to think that we’ve given up control of the world’s food supply to a handful of transnational corporations who in fact (despite the efforts of their PR departments) are structurally loyal to no one but their shareholders. Those who own the food own us. In the world of The Windup Girl this condition is taken to its logical extreme where, once petroleum runs out, food prices skyrocket, and people begin starving, food companies grow to be the biggest and most important ones. In the true spirit of free-market competition, they release genetically-engineered super-blights to wipe out all crops but their own, and their executives (whom Bacigalupi calls “calorie men”, a play on “salary men”) are the only well-fed people on the planet besides corrupt politicians and gangsters. Yet in the end even they aren’t safe from the epidemiological and political chaos they’ve unleashed. Thus does the book make an ironic point, that there is in fact something worse than a world run by evil geniuses: a world run by shortsighted sociopaths, for at least the former is keenly aware of its vested economic interest in the persistence of our species.
If it’s not already clear, The Windup Girl is a dark book, about the twilight of the human race. Its human characters are almost invariably repugnant and deserving of their species’ death, and their behavior renders inconceivable the possibility that humans might have relationships beyond the utilitarian, or that life might have meaning outside survival. I’m reminded of Hobbes’ state of nature, in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Perhaps it’s unrealistic, even in fiction, to expect anything more than animal self-interest in conditions of such extreme scarcity.
Thus do we have Emi, the titular windup girl, a genetically-modified trans-human. I foolishly placed in her my hope for the redemption of humanity, but alas, the sins of my species are visited upon our superhuman progeny. At the hands of her human masters, Emi suffers emotional and physical degradation to a degree that made me put the book down at times, and as a result when her moments of truth arrive, she lashes out like a frightened child (if said child were a gene-hacked killing machine). Even Nietzsche couldn’t be optimistic about the ascendancy of this kind of übermensch.
But, if you can get over feeling like shit about our species, Bacigalupi’s story is a great read full of sociological and political intrigue, believable prognostication, and compelling tragedy.