The wind up girl Emiko is a GM human. She was designed and produced in Japan, in a near-ish future, perhaps a hundred or so years from now. Her genetics and upbringing mean that she cannot resist direct commands. Emiko’s world is calorie constrained. Oil has run out, carbon emissions are expensive, sea level has risen by some meters, and a variety of plant and human diseases plague the earth. Prior to the story, the population of the earth has contracted, through starvation, disease, and war.
Emiko has been abandoned by her Japanese owner in Thailand. Her status is of an illegal non human, with no right to work, food, or life. She ends up in a brothel-bar, where she is expected to undertake sex work in return for food, shelter, and ‘protection’. Due to her non-human status and ‘toy’ elements in her design, in addition to her one-on-one prostitution, she is also abused as entertainment for the wider brothel-bar clientele.
Anderson meets Emiko in the bar and falls in lust with her. He is in Thailand in an undercover capacity, seeking out its GM science secrets, and possibly the last repository of pre-contraction plant seeds left on earth. He becomes obsessed with Emiko, and in turn she becomes dependent on him. [Spoilers!] However, he has no compunction about effectively selling her to the very high ranking queen’s-protector, who is apparently well known for his ‘dark’ tastes, for gain. This strategy backfires when Emiko rebels against the abuse. Catastrophic consequences ensue for city and main characters. At the end however, among the sea water and drowned city, there is hope for the windup girl.
Emiko, Anderson, Anderson’s factory manager Hoch, and the law enforcer Kanya are other main characters in the book. Unlike Emiko, they are all fairly complex and have considerable power over their lives. They are driven by their own personal moral codes, own forms of personal or national ambitions, and notably have surprisingly little compunction about manipulating or killing others.
This is quite a complex tale. For much of the book I was rather torn in my enjoyment of it. I found the sexual abuse scenes too pornographic; the female characters insufficiently drawn; and Anderson too stereotypically Western Company Man. Possibly some of these features are partly due to the nature of the writing, which can feel cold and distant. But in the end, it got there. The writing remained rather cold, though often beautiful, but the world and its characters are compelling and I warmed to it.
Minor quibbles: The bar-brothel scenes *are* in keeping with the rest of this style of writing. But I cannot see why a description of non-public/abusive sex, which clarified the nature of Anderson and Emiko’s relationship, would not have been in keeping with the writing style. It would have made plot sense, and have meant that this side of the book felt more balanced, and less unfortunately gratuitously pornographic.
A more major quibble, and perhaps the oddest thing about the book: the lack of explanation as to why solar, or other carbon-free means of energy production, are not used. This undermines the calorie-based premise of the story. But, TBH, regardless I still think this book is worth reading. I was a definite convert by the end, and will probably try Paola Bacigalupi’s latest offering, The Water Knife sometime soonish.