The Windup Girl, By Paolo Bacigalupi

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The Independent Culture

Paolo Bacigalupi's debut novel, the winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards for science fiction, is set in a dystopian Bangkok after the world has suffered an environmental catastrophe: sea levels are rising, fossil fuels are all but exhausted, and genetic manipulation offers the only hope for a sustainable food supply. Against this bleak backdrop, Thailand stands on the brink of civil war, riven by competing political and commercial interests.

Bacigalupi's descriptions of the teeming streets are vigorous and compelling: "A seethe of traffic... morning commuters clogging Thanon Rama IX like the Mekong in flood. Bicycles and cycle rickshaws, blue-black water buffaloes and great shambling megodonts." And the book reads like a rollicking historical novel: there's a cast of deliciously corrupt characters, from dissipated expatriate financiers to avaricious generals, the author skilfully building momentum while interweaving their stories.

There are flaws: the dialogue is occasionally clumsy, and the central character – "a windup", or artificial being, who yearns to be human – is a sci-fi cliché. But the action scenes, related in taut, breathless prose, can be stunning. Tremendous entertainment.