Some science fiction authors have fantastic ideas but are not great storytellers. Some are gifted storytellers but their is nothing particularly original about their ideas. Bacigalupi is one of the few SF authors who excels at both. The windup Girl is filled with brilliant ideas, but it also an absorbing political thriller that could have worked even without the SF elements.
The novel is set in Thailand in the near future. Environmental catastrophes have decimated the human population and most modern technology is gone. This world is post-oil and most mechanical devices are powered by springs that are compressed using animal power such as genetically engineered over-sized elephants called megodonts. New agricultural blights have destroyed most of the world's food supply, and nearly all fruits and vegetables have gone extinct. Most global power is in the hands of the "calorie companies" that control the remaining food supplying with grains genetically engineered to resist the plagues. Thailand is one of the last holdouts free of the calorie companies' control.
We follow four main characters with very different backgrounds. Anderson Lake is an American businessman in Bangkok posing as the manager of a kink-spring factory, but actually a front for AngriGen looking for the secrets of Thailand's food supply. Hock Seng is an ethnic Chinese Malaysian refugee who was once a prosperous business man but is now reduced to working for Lake who he despises and actively plots against. Jaidee is a Captain in the powerful Environment Ministry that enforces Thailand's harsh environmental protection laws. He is also the only honest man in an extremely corrupt ministry, which makes him loved by the people and hated by the government. Finally we have Emiko, the windup girl of the title. She is a Japanese made "new person," genetically designed to be beautiful and strong, but also obedient. Abandoned on the streets of Bangkok by her Japanese owner, she is reduced to working in a live sex show.
The plot of The Windup Girl moves so fast that whatever you think is going to be the main plot in one chapter gets swept away by the press of events in the next chapter. There is a plot about mysterious engineered fruit, which is replaced by a criminal conspiracy, that is replaced by political plots and counter-plots, then an epidemic, a revolution, a deviant scientist, assassinations, and on it goes. Everyone hates everyone else, everyone betrays everyone, and the only sympathetic character is Emiko who is so abused it is heartbreaking. She is actually superior to everyone else, but has been trained to believe she is garbage.
While the novel is named for Emiko, she gets less than a quarter of the narrative. Windup is an insulting term for genetically engineered humans, but they are not mechanical, only biologically enhanced. The title may be a play on the idea of the kink-springs that power all the machines in the city. If you wind a spring too tightly it will eventually break and shatter in all directions. The entire story is about pushing a situation until it explodes, and nothing is pushed harder or explodes more destructively than Emiko.