Post-Petroleum Energy Regimes in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl

Posted by on Sep 11, 2013

While the concept of apocalypse has long been a generative and motivating trope for environmental-minded authors, filmmakers, thinkers, and activists, it has also prevented a certain kind of future-oriented imagination.  Unless one is predicting an extinction-level event, or a planet that is literally uninhabitable, the slippery conceptual slope between “catastrophe” and “apocalypse” prevents many authors and artists from imagining what the future might hold for the many who do survive.  This is to say that Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel The Windup Girl, which was published in 2009 but only recently made its way into my hands, is a tremendously important novel for anyone interested in energy and environmental futures.

The novel is set in 23rd-century Thailand, one of the few nations which has survived becoming a failed state amidst rising seas and extreme weather events which have sunk global metropolises (such as New York, New Orleans, and Mumbai), a global Contraction resulting from petroleum scarcity, and (for good measure) food plagues resulting from the widespread use of genetically engineered (“genehacked”) sterile seeds.  Its title refers to Emiko, a humanoid “New Person” created by genetic engineers to serve as slaves.  As others have noted, The Windup Girl feels at times like a (worthy) successor to William Gibson’s Neuromancer, in its dense, vibrant prose, abundance of fictional slang, and the richness and complexity of its vision.  It’s a compelling novel.

The Windup Girl has much to offer to ecocritics, as Andrew Hageman pointed out in an excellent 2011 article, including subjects such as climate futures; skillful explorations (complications) of critical concepts such as “nature” and “human beings”; the nation-state in the age of globalization (especially of environmental phenomena, such as climate change and climate migration); the relationship between spirituality and technology; and the contradictions between capitalism and sustainability.  It seems likely that it will be mined (pun intended) for these subjects and many more in the future.  But what makes the novel relatively unique is the centrality of energy in its speculative vision.

Of course, there have been no shortage of English-language novels that have portrayed different energy and environmental futures over the last half-decade, whether they’re based on peak oil (see here) or climate change (see here), and almost every utopia or dystopia (from Soylent Green to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) touches on the subject of energy.  However, most offer few details about future energy regimes.  More importantly, few offer more the kind of radically changed relationship with and awareness of energy itself than The Windup Girl.  In its future, the world has undergone a “Contraction” of global trade and travel due to a shortage of petroleum, and there seem to be binding national limits on carbon emissions.  Although fossil fuels are still used here and there, human beings have primarily returned to a somatic energy regime, once again dependent on human and animal muscle.  To augment human muscles, scientists have brought back to life fifteen-foot elephants from the Pleistocene (see an artist’s rendering of them here), megodonts, who transport goods around Bangkok and wind “kink-springs” that serve as energy storage units.

In such a world, where one’s air conditioning is provided by human arms winding the air conditioning springs in the morning (“the joules of men”), the costs of energy consumption can no longer be mystified.  One early passage describes the genehacked animals in a kink-spring factory:

The main flywheels spin up and the factory shivers as gears beneath the floor engage.  The floorboards vibrate.  Kinetic power sparks through the system like adrenaline, a tingling anticipation of the energy about to put into the manufacturing line.  A megodont screams protest and is lashed into silence.  The whine of the flywheels rises to a howl, and then cuts off as joules gush into the drive system. (10)

Similarly, the environmental consequences of carbon consumption are laid painfully bare.   Whereas few of us have any idea how much energy our computers and digital hardware actually consume and where it comes from (unless we read articles like this one), the characters in The Windup Girl can’t help but connect each blinking light to the rising ocean that threatens to drown their city.  Without fossil fuels the iPods and MacBooks have gone silent, and when one character comes upon a working computer, the narrator notes that

The amount of power burning through them makes Kanya weak in the knees.  She can almost see the ocean rising in response.  It’s a horrifying thing to stand beside. (215)

The radical shift in awareness of energy and environment—as this passage shows, an understanding that is emotional and not just intellectual—could certainly be seen as a harbinger of things to come, and perhaps works of imaginative fiction such as The Windup Girl can even encourage such connections.  Let’s hope that more authors join Bacigalupi in daring to think beyond “the end.”