The Windup Girl: Orientalism, Science Fiction, and Wasn’t Your Own Culture Good Enough For Your Dystopian Novel?

I recently finished The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi’s critically acclaimed science fiction novel about a world where bioengineering has run amock and the person who can create and store the most calories—of food or of energy—wins. The book came highly recommended by someone who knows I am a fan of dystopian novels and science fiction, and, for the most part, I thought the book was interesting, but there was a huge problem I couldn’t get over.

The book is set in an alternate version of the Kingdom of Thailand, a Thailand become triumphant because it utilises aggressive environmental policies to protect itself, and actually ends up expanding. Were the book by a Thai author, this would delight me, but Bacigalupi is quite obviously not Thai, so a whiff of Orientalism creeps in there. It gets even worse when you realise that the story revolves around the lives of a group of expatriates. There are Thai people as well as Chinese and Japanese people, but they are very much secondary to the story.

There’s a long history of novels by writers from the United States set in Asia and featuring expatriate characters. Characters who do pretty much all the same things the characters in this book do. They explore the ‘seamy’ side of Asia, going to sex shows and buying sex with ‘exotic’ women. They look down their noses at the ‘natives’ and all the strategising they have to do to outwit them, even as they imbue the people around them with a certain sense of mysticism. They view the Asian characters as walking stereotypes.

The windup girl of the title is a bioengineered person[1. Via Jha, here’s a link to a piece discussing the considerable problems with the robots-as-sex-workers trope that comes up in science fiction rather a lot.] developed by Japanese inventors, another example of the Orientalism in this book; of course Japanese inventors would develop a ‘geisha like’ person engineered to serve without question, right? And, naturally, she would literally be a delicate hothouse flower with a hidden violent and aggressive side.

I ended up finishing this book and just going ‘ugh,’ which I do a lot these days, it seems. There’s this huge trend in US science fiction right now to set books in an Asia of the future, throw in a couple of characters from the US, and call it good. All of these books embody the worst parts of Orientalism in fiction, living up every stereotype to the hilt and dripping with Chinoiserie. It’s all very boring, especially since if I want to read science fiction set in Asia, I can find books by actual Asian and Pacific Islander authors to read, and I would vastly prefer to read those, personally.

This book speaks to a common trend I see used to justify cultural appropriation: We have no culture, or our culture is boring. Who would want to read a science fiction novel set in a fictional future United States? Well, I would, actually. I’ve read a lot of really great apocalyptic, dystopian science fiction set in the United States, and loved it, a lot. Because this country does have a culture and exploring that culture and the ways it might manifest in the future is highly relevant to my interests. I’m interested in books where the author uses science fiction as a vehicle to explore and criticise certain ideas embedded in the way we think, act, and process the things around us in this country.

There’s a simultaneous devaluation that happens with books like this. There’s the devaluation of our own culture implied in setting a book outside the United States when it could just as easily have been set here, and the devaluation of the culture the book is set in by suggesting that it’s not really interesting unless expats from the US are in it. And, of course, the devaluation of people actually living in that culture and writing their experiences that happens when you have writers from the outside writing the Other, and usually doing it very, very badly.

The Windup Girl could have been set in a low lying city in the US, fighting to hold back the waters of rising seas, struggling to maintain the culture and history of the US. There could just as easily have been bioengineered people developed in Akron, Ohio, or Savannah, Georgia. But to take the book out of Thailand would have been to deny the author the opportunity to use certain codewords and phrases; the main character wouldn’t have had the shorthand to cultural superiority implied by expats in Asia, and of course the windup girl would have been read very differently as a character if she wasn’t a biogineered geisha.

In other words, to set the book in his own culture, to explore his own culture, the author would have had to actually not be lazy. The fact that Orientalism is most often used by authors who just can’t be bothered to be creative and work a bit is extremely offensive, to my eye, and it’s a reminder of all the racialised codes that surround us. Had this book been set in Africa, for example, it would also have had a very different look and feel, one surrounded by noble savages and, I have no doubt, ‘helpful’ people and companies from the US who prevented Africa from slipping into anarchy in the world of the future.

Colonialist tropes are still colonialist tropes, even when they appear in books set in the future. And they are still quite harmful, as readers continue to absorb the same messages they absorbed in books written 30, 60, 90 years ago, books that seeped into the public consciousness and informed the way people thought about other regions of the world and the way people interacted with cultures beyond the boundaries of the United States.

I prefer my science fiction challenging and boundary breaking, rather than just a reinforcement of existing norms, thanks.