You shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but you have to admit, a beautiful and evocative cover can do a lot to build up your expectations about the contents. And Paulo Bacigalupi's Nebula award-winning book gives you exactly what it promises on the cover: slums and high towers in Krung Thep (Bangkok), where the end of the petroleum age means long-distance travel is now by clipper ship or dirigible, and power is generated by manually-wound "kink-springs," which is where the giant mutant elephants come in.
The Windup Girl is set more or less a hundred years from now. The exact date is never specified, but while the geopolitical landscape is still recognizable, it's significantly different. Following the "Contraction," the superpowers of old have become smaller and reduced in power, but the West still remains wealthy and technologically advanced compared to the rest of the world. The most powerful corporations now are the "calorie companies," who sell genetically-engineered crops to a starving world. They enjoy this food monopoly because they engineered the plagues that wiped out most naturally-occurring crops, forcing everyone else to buy their (sterile) seedstock. Unfortunately, some of those plagues got out of hand (whoda thunk?), and now they are constantly mutating, forcing the calorie companies to continously engineer new crop variants, trying stay a step ahead of what they've unleashed.
The book is set in Thailand, which, much like Japan in the 17th century, has mostly closed its borders to foreigners, except for a few traders allowed in the capital city. Thailand has remained largely independent of Western influence and the calore companies thanks to its heirloom seedbanks, which have been untouched by the genetically-engineered plagues.
There are several POV characters in the book, which makes it annoying at times, since chapters switch between them and sometimes just when things are getting interesting, the narrative jumps to a less interesting/more annoying character.
Anderson Lake is a "calorie man." Working undercover in Bangkok as the manager of a foreign-invested kink-spring factory, he's actually trying to scope out where the Thais are hiding their seedbank, and get his hands on it. So, basically, even though he's the main protagonist throughout most of the book, he's the bad guy.
Jaidee Rojjanasukcha and Kanya (whose last name is never given) are "white shirts" -- officers in the dreaded enforcement arm of Thailand's Environmental Ministry. Their job is to destroy any plagues or invasive species that enter Thailand, which they do quite zealously, literally burning villages to save them. Unfortunately, they regard a lot of people as "invasive species" too, particularly...
Hock Seng is a "yellow card," one of the thousands of Malaysian Chinese refugees who fled to Thailand after his family, and all the other Chinese in Malaysia, were slaughtered by fundamentalist Muslims. Hock Seng works for Anderson Lake at the kink-spring factory, but he has his own schemes to try to renew his fortunes.
And finally, we have Emiko, the Windup Girl. She's a genetically-engineered "New Person" created in Japan. The Japanese have created servants like Emiko to cater to their aging population. Emiko was brought to Thailand by a Japanese businessman, and then abandoned there when he was called home, because it was too expensive to bring her back with him. Since the Thais regard "New People" as soulless abominations to be exterminated like any other "invasive," Emiko begins the story in an even sadder state than all these tragic characters.
This is one of the best science fiction novels I've read in a long time. The worldbuilding is excellent. I can't vouch for the accuracy of Bacigalupi's portrayal of the Thai kingdom, but it seemed meticulously detailed and researched to me. There is futuristic "biopunk" technology, political intrigue, and characters who are, for the most part, pretty believable and morally ambiguous.
The characters were perhaps my least favorite part of the book, since everyone is motivated almost entirely by selfishness or egotism. Emiko is the only really sympathetic character, and her goal is just to survive, and until the last part of the book, her role is mostly that of victim and her personality that of conditioned subservience.
I had a few quibbles with the setting: where is the solar and wind power? And why would bladed disk-shooting kink-spring guns replace traditional firearms? (Okay, they're cool, but they're described several times as lacking in penetrating power, and you don't need petroleum to manufacture gunpowder.) But my objections were pretty minor overall.
It's not entirely clear where the plot is going, either, until the last half of the book. The first half alternates between each character's individual story, occasionally intersecting but not really overlapping. Eventually, though, they all come together for a suitably dramatic climax. (Extra bonus points: while there's certainly enough material left that Bacigalupi could easily write a sequel, the resolution in The Windup Girl is sufficient that a sequel is by no means necessary. I, for one, while I don't mind series fiction, am rather tired of never being able to read a book that isn't just setting up the next installment.)
My verdict: this is one that deserves the buzz. It's an impressive debut novel, and a can't-miss for anyone who likes dystopian sci-fi.