This is the second Bacigalupi book I've read, the first being The Water Knife. He seems to delight in writing stories that detail all of the ways that humanity is fucking itself over and what might happen after that. TWK focused on the water crisis in the American west. The Windup Girl is about genetically modified organisms.
As with TWK, TWG has several main characters. Anderson Lake is living in Thailand and working undercover for an American food company called AgriGren. He's investigating varieties of foods that have started popping up in Thailand (which has restrictions against dealing with the big food companies) because something is not quite right about them, and he suspects a Western geneticist (or generipper) of working with Thailand's seed bank on bringing the foods back into existence. (Because, of course, no one in Thailand could do this themselves.) As part of his cover, he runs a factory that makes kink springs--this is a spring-powered world, as apparently most gasoline has been used up, and there are strict carbon emission restrictions in place.
Our other big characters are Emiko, the titular windup girl. Windups are genetically engineered people created by the Japanese to fulfill different tasks. Emiko was built as a secretary/assistant/all around pretty girl, and lived a life of luxury until her owner abandoned her in Thailand instead of paying to bring her back to Japan after a business trip. Now she works at a strip joint/brothel where she is raped onstage nightly by one of her fellow performers. She's also reviled by the people of Thailand in general because they believe windups have no souls. Tan Hock Seng is Anderson Lake's factory manager who's using his position to advance himself, and Jaidee, the head of a band of "white shirts" who work as enforcers for the Environment Ministry and are the arch enemies of the Trade Ministry.
This did not appeal to me as much as The Water Knife did. Something about the passion of the characters that moved TWK was not really present in The Windup Girl. Emiko yearns to be free, but that's about as passionate it gets. Even Jaidee, with his hatred for the Trade Ministry and his love for the people of Thailand, doesn't seem to embody the same passions that the characters in TWK did. The world here is fascinating; the genetically-modified organisms that populate it, from the plants to the megadonts (like elephants, but not) to the windups (who also come in many-armed varieties, for factory for field work, and presumably other types, too) and more. But what initially seems like a strong central plot revolving around Anderson's search for the new food and the generipper behind it and Emiko's quest for freedom, seems to quickly get derailed into a plot that more revolves around the de-evolution of relations between the different Ministries into a scramble that will determine the country's future. While this makes sense for the character of Jaidee, it doesn't seem to really "fit" the other characters, who sort of all end up along for the ride. And while Emiko ultimately is a catalyst, and I thought that part worked well, I feel like this just missed the boat for me overall. It did win a Hugo and a Nebula, though, so clearly not everyone feels the same way. The ending is powerful and open enough that it lets the reader imagine the different ways the story might go from there, but again...the body of the book just didn't capture me.
3 stars out of 5 for wonderful world building and a good catalyst and ending, but an unconvincing body.