Author Paolo Bacigalupi’s debut novel, The Windup Girl [published in 2009 by Night Shades Books], celebrates its 10th anniversary this fall. Critically acclaimed, it was named one of the top 10 fiction books in 2009 by TIME Magazine and won the 2010 Nebula Award, the Campbell Memorial Award, and the 2010 Hugo Award in a tie with China Miéville’s The City & the City. The novel has become one of the defining works of biopunk, a sub-genre of science fiction which explores dystopic worlds of genetic manipulation by power brokers.
The Windup Girl is set in 23rd century Thailand, barricaded with a massive levee system shielding the island from rising sea levels due to global warming. The kingdom, thus isolated from the human-induced plagues of the world, contains the remaining genetically viable seeds on Earth. Within this climate fiction (cli-fi) and biopunk fusion, Bacigalupi weaves an intricate tale of political intrigue between mega-corporations and politicians fighting for control over the last untouched seedbank, complicated by Emiko, an illegal Japanese “windup,” a genetically modified human created as a pleasure doll, but who revolts from her programmed impulses in order to free herself from sexual slavery.
However, this mashup of biopunk and cli-fi subgenres started with Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy of speculative fiction: Oryx and Crake [2003; shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction], The Year of the Flood [2009; 10-year anniversary], and MaddAddam . Though global warming has affected Atwood’s near-future Earth, the multifaceted trilogy revolves around genetic engineering gone bad—really bad.
In this apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic saga, Atwood tells an exquisite story of love and madness, but whether the insanity lies within the brilliant geneticist or within the malaise of a broken world is left for the reader to decide. Reminiscent of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, Atwood masterfully pieces together flashbacks and parallel scenes from different viewpoints, until the overarching story clicks deliberately into place, like a brilliant Rubik's Cube. For you CliffsNotes folks, let me break it down: A complex tale of love in a f#%k-upped world. Get it. Read it. Rumor is the trilogy might be coming to the screen…
The terrifying reality is that our world of genetic engineering is no longer fiction. Like Aldous Huxley’s “fantasy” novel, Brave New World, ready or not, we are on the cusp of a biotechnology revolution. CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) has its roots in the mid-1980s, but major advances in genome editing sprang up in this century. On November 28, 2018, a Chinese scientist, Jiankui He, announced that he had created the world’s first gene-edited babies. And so Pandora’s Box has opened.
Fears over climate change and genetic engineering are threads within the stomach-knotting anxieties of the new millennium. The beginning of the 2000s saw horrific terror attacks around the globe, unending wars in the Middle East, and instability in Europe. As the century continued, a financial meltdown sent economic woes rippling across the world, with unemployment exacerbated by the rise of technology. (Is the angry backlash of populism truly a surprise?)
Behind the curtains of our partisan battles and economic instability, puppet masters jerk the strings of political “hostages” for their own benefit. And we capricious humans play god—global warming melts the Earth’s ice caps and genetic engineering leapfrogs over human morality. But as the tenets of society erode amidst the angst of this new century, a thirst for “why” and “what if” drive writers to attempt to make sense of it all, spinning parables of warning to an unsuspecting, or simply complacent, humanity.
This article was also published in FUTURISM magazine: Cli-Fi Meets Biopunk