Notes on Diversity:
On the surface, this book looks diverse. It’s set in Thailand, and at least two of the viewpoint characters (Lieutenant Kanya and Emiko) are not only people of color but also women. Lieutenant Kanya is also queer. I read this book because it was a high-profile well-respected award-winning diverse science fiction book. At least, this is what it purports to be.
This is actually a case of diversity-gone-wrong. Anderson Lake, a White cis-het man, is the dominant POV and the most developed character. Thailand is largely seen through his eyes, and the rest of the cast exists to add color and spice to his story. This is a case where, in spite of the fact that Anderson Lake is one of the few White characters in the story, basically all of the people of color suffer from tokenism. They are painted in broad strokes, and those broad strokes are guided, unfortunately, by stereotypes.
The Windup Girl is one long diversity fail.
The environment is in shambles. Espionage in the 23rd century, at least as embodied by Anderson Lake, takes the form of swiping the location of a Thai seedbank. Along the way, we are introduced to Emiko, the titular Windup Girl, a Japanese New Person sex slave, and Lieutenant Kanya, a policewoman embroiled in some very complicated politics.
It is a setup that makes for an interesting book. And Paolo Bacigalupi is a good writer. But the book fails, and it fails because there is actually very little that is new here. The spec fic stuff in it is just bells and whistles, but the ideas are actually just rehashes of Orientalist male fantasies that have been around for centuries.
This is not a book about biotechnology or Thailand. This is just another book about how an East Asian woman (Emiko) seems so foreign to a White man that she appears soulless, but that she hold immense and disruptive sexual appeal to him anyway. And, of course, she is bred to be submissive and obedient. Name a trope related to the fetishization about Asian women and it’s here, but it’s played completely straight.
Honestly, the only reason I gave this book two stars instead of one was Lieutenant Kanya. She appeared on the page as a queer woman of color with at least some interiority, and she was a reprieve from the unrelenting Orientalist assault that was the Anderson Lake-Emiko storyline. Like Emiko, Kanya is not free of stereotypes: she is a butch lesbian who is humorless and who ultimately ends up alone1. But, hell, at least Kanya got some interesting things do to plot-wise. At least she wasn’t, quite literally, a lab-grown sex-slave for a White man to ogle who played into harmful stereotypes rather than dismantling them.
It was strange reading this book, because it was so well-received. There are times when you read a book and it’s truly like the rest of the world is reading an altogether different book. Yes, Bacigalupi can construct a nice sentence. Yes, thinking about a world populated with dirigables and armed genetically enhanced elephants is pretty cool. But the titular character2 is a damsel in distress in the worst possible way; Emiko’s storylines start antiquated and continue to be so throughout the book. Bacigalupi has nothing fresh or new to say about her. This book is far from feminist or intersectional.
I expect more from fiction. As a reader on the margins, I demand more from fiction, especially well-regarded fiction. Well-regarded fiction should treat its vulnerable, exploited, marginalized characters with at least a modicum of respect. They should be granted a shred of agency.
1Because Lesbians Can Never Be Happy
2That the title is the slur used against the New People really sets the tone for Emiko’s storyline in hindsight.
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