The Windup Girl: Science Fiction Moves West of the West

18 Feb
Cover of

The Windup Girl

In a trend that has been evident for some time, science fiction has crossed the Pacific and landed in Asia. What was once the hard-boiled technolust heaped on Los Angeles has become a fanciful orientalism featuring Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Bangkok. This trend has not escaped scholars of religion such as Rudy Busto, who argued this point at recent American Academy of Religion sessions on religion and science fiction. He’s not alone, nor is the point losing any salience when we consider the 2009 the book that took the science fiction world by storm, winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards: Paolo Bacigalupi‘s The Windup Girl.

In the future Bacigalupi narrates, calories have become currency because modified foodstocks have ravaged crops and bio-terrorism has led to the evolution of post-humans. That’s the short version, at least. The longer version is that we are privy to the desperation and duplicity of those in the future who fight for and against corporate empires that rule the planet. We are made to root for agents of the evil empires because they are working within the system for a better future, and we are led to distrust or even dislike the popular heroes that rally the people. Up is down and left is right–or at least that’s the way things can feel early on in the story. Science is the double-edged sword that stands behind our ruin and lies before our salvation. If I may say so, it’s a satisfying literary roller coaster, and I haven’t even gotten halfway through the text yet to feel the full thrill of the loops and barrel rolls.

But I share The Windup Girl with you today not because it pushes the West across the dateline to Asia, but rather because the work invests–and invests heavily–in religion. We’re not even a few sentences onto page two before we get a taste of the way religion will be infused into the whole work:

The fruit’s long hairs tickle his palm, challenging him to recognize its origin. Another Thai genehacking success, just like the tomatoes and eggplants and chiles that abound in the neighboring stalls. It’s as if the Grahamite Bible’s prophecies are coming to pass. As if Saint Francis himself stirs in his grave, restless, preparing to stride forth onto the land, bearing with him the bounty of history’s lost calories.

The role of religion in the text resembles its presence in Asia today: It is ever-present but not overbearing and it mixes freely among a host of religious traditions with ease. In this respect, Bacigalupi stands beside some of best recent authors who have successfully integrated religion and religious themes into their works. (Ted Chiang‘s short stories come to mind, but I also recommend Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.) What will happen, I wonder, when the story inevitably weaves the religious undertones into the fabric of the plot. Whispers of prophecies on the second page? A vision of Christianity evolved to respond to the calorie wars? Yes and yes, please.

Anyone have any other recent works of fiction that they can recommend to me? I’m always looking for great new writers and novels!


One Response to “The Windup Girl: Science Fiction Moves West of the West”


  1. Beware the Ides of March! « A Lively Experiment - March 30, 2011

    […] been reading quite a few things that merit discussion. I finished The Wind-up Girl and I also devoured China Mieville’s The City and the City. I’m reading Jane […]

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