Since I don't know enough about nineteenth century Asia to state this definitively, I remain guarded about judging The Windup Girl as utilizing the steampunk aesthetic. My suspicion is that it does, and because most North American readers have no idea what nineteenth century Asia was like, will not make the connection to steampunk. I'm hoping I'm right about this, because if I am, it's the answer to fellow steampunk scholar Jha Goh's search for steampunk that doesn't privilege WASP protagonists. It takes place in a future that seems to echo an Asia right before the Boxer rebellion, right down to the White Shirts, a group of militant police lead by the charismatic Jaidee, the "Tiger of Bangkok", once a famous muay thai fighter. The world has regressed in some areas of technology: you need a special license to use gasoline, air travel is limited to airships, and people generate electricity through kinetic energy, either self-made by pedaling, through the harnessed megadonts (genetically altered elephants), or held in high-tension crank-generators. In other ways, it has advanced: food is genetically altered to withstand the environmental plagues of the future, and artificial animals and humans can be manufactured. One of the more interesting ideas Bacigalupi explores is how in a future of nutritional scarcity, Calories become currency: one scene involving blood draining into the sewers is reflected upon as lost calories.
Even if I'm wrong about the setting having a steampunk aesthetic to it, the nature of the eponymous heroine, Emiko the Windup Girl echoes a number of other steampunk narratives concerned with artificial life. The automatons and golems of steampunk are simply retroactive versions of twentieth century SF's robots, androids, cyborgs, replicants and cylons. I don't necessarily think steampunk brings anything new to speculative fiction in terms of themes, but I do think that it deals with those themes in a fresh way, by clothing them in new/old skins. Emiko looks exactly like a human, like the replicants of Blade Runner and Cylons of the reimagined Galactica, but betrays her artificial genesis in her stutter-stop motion like other clockwork girls from Kleist's The Sandman to Finn von Claret's dance performance during Abney Park's "Herr Drosselmeyer's Doll", a built-in flaw that keeps Windups from becoming superior (and ultimately replacing) humans. Her journey of identity and self-actualization mirrors that of the clockwork girl Mattie in Ekaterina Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone, addressing the familiar SF ground of what constitutes "human". Consider the following conversation between Jaidee and one of his men concerning genetically altered Cheshire cats, which have effectively replaced regular cats due to their artificially enhanced camouflaging ability. The Cheshires are so successful as a species that they literally cannot be eliminated, despite the White Shirts' attempts to do so:
"I sometimes wonder if my family's cibiscosis was karmic retribution for all those cheshires."As I've said, the artificial human is a trope of SF, not steampunk per se. But in reading The Windup Girl, Ted Chiang's "72 Letters" and Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone, I'm suspicious that steampunk deals with the artificial human in a way that is somewhat different from other types of SF. Not a conclusive statement by any stretch, and I welcome any thoughts on the matter.
"It couldn't be. They're not natural."
Somchai shrugs. "They breed. They eat. They live. They breathe." He smiles slightly. "If you pet them, they will purr."
Jaidee makes a face of disgust.
"It's true. I have touched them. They are real. As much as you or I."
"They're just empty vessels. No soul fills them."
Somchai shrugs. "Maybe even the worst monstrosities of the Japanese live in some way. I worry that Noi and Chart and Malee and Prem have been reborn in windup bodies. Not all of us are good enough to become Contraction phii. Maybe some of us become windups, in Japanese factories, working working working,you know? We're so few in comparison to the past, where did all the sould go? Maybe to the Japanese? Maybe into windups." (173-74)
Emiko, like all of Bacigalupi's characters, is a round and dynamic--while The Windup Girl contains an engaging plot, it is a novel of characters and ideas, and succeeds on both those levels beyond expectation. Maybe that's one of the reasons I want it to have steampunk elements, so that I can include it in my research. After reading numerous high adventures without much to say about the human condition, the environment, or the ethics of genetic science, it was a pleasure to read a work that not only addresses the issues, but does so in a satisfying manner. While Bacigalupi's future is a dystopia, he never abandons hope in the way many dystopic writers do. This future may not be so bright you have to wear shades (or goggles), but it's not the darkness of despair either.