Scott Lazerus came to Worlds Without End looking for some good books to read. Luckily for us he decided to stay awhile and write some reviews. He recently launched a new blog series for us called Forays into Fantasy in which he explores the roots of the fantasy genre from a science fiction fan’s perspective.
In The Drowned Cities, Paolo Bacigalupi returns to the future America first envisioned in his 2010 young adult novel, Ship Breaker, enriching it by moving beyond his typical environmental concerns into a meditation on dysfunctional politics. Bacigalupi has said in interviews that, after a lot of work, he abandoned the attempt to write a direct sequel to Ship Breaker. Instead, The Drowned Cities introduces new characters to guide the reader further into the same world. Moving north from the setting of the previous novel, The Drowned Cities are what remains of Washington, D. C. and its environs, now engulfed by the rising ocean. Military forces led by competing warlords fight for control of the area, using conscripted child soldiers.
Mahlia is a “castoff”–child of an African-American antiquities dealer and a Chinese peacekeeper. The peacekeepers attempted for over a decade to end the ongoing civil conflicts and promote economic development in the Drowned Cities, but eventually abandoned the effort. Mahlia’s father left with the rest of the peacekeepers, abandoning Mahlia and her mother, who is killed when the natives turn on everyone who had “collaborated” with the Chinese, including their castoff children. Mahlia loses a hand in the violence, but manages to escape due to the impulsive actions of a former farm boy named Mouse, who is also trying to survive in this violent world, having lost his parents to the fighting. Now inseparable, the two are adopted by Doctor Mahfouz, who is trying to help maintain a semblance of civilization in this fallen world, practicing medicine and stockpiling books from ruined libraries in the rural community of Banyan Town. Training her as a medical assistant, it is only his protection that keeps Mahlia relatively safe from the town’s hatred of castoffs. Their lives, already precarious, are disrupted by their discovery of the injured Tool–the one character carried over from Ship Breaker–who is on the run from soldiers of the United Patriot Front (UPF), who value him as an entertaining participant in their arena fighting tournaments. Tool is an “augment”–a genetically engineered fighting machine with human, hyena, dog, and tiger DNA. A fascinating character creation, it’s understandable that Bacigalupi wanted to explore him further.
When a band of UPF soldiers arrives, hunting for Tool, Banyan Town is caught in the middle, with serious consequences for the town, for Doctor Mahfouz, and for Mouse, who narrowly escapes death but is recruited by the UPF and forced to become a “soldier boy.” To what extent is Mahlia, who treated Tool’s injuries and refused to turn him over to the soldiers, responsible for these tragedies? Throughout the book, Bacigalupi plays with the ambiguity of responsibility in such extreme circumstances. In the midst of a war, to what extent can she be held responsible for the soldiers’ reactions in response to her refusal to give in to their demands? For that matter, to what extent are soldiers responsible for the violence they perpetrate under orders, especially when those soldiers are children who cannot survive outside of the “family” provided by their platoons? Ocho, a UPF soldier who, before the end of the novel, must make his own choice about perpetuating the cycle of war that has made him both a victim and a victimizer, defends the soldier boys, while recognizing the evil they are caught up in: “None of us asked for this! …None of us were like this…. We aren’t born like this. They make us this way.”
Unable to abandon the boy who at one time rescued her and attempting to make up for her role in these events, Mahlia makes what seems to be a suicidal decision to track Mouse into the Drowned Cities and rescue him from the UPF. Thus begins the adventure that makes up the second half of the novel, as well as Mahlia’s personal journey toward an understanding of the complexities of personal morality in a world where individuals are constrained by a dysfunctional society. Tool, who has his own scores to settle, accompanies her, their uneasy alliance growing as the novel progresses.
Like Ship Breaker, which won the Printz Award for best YA novel from the American Library Association and the 2011 Locus YA award, and was nominated for the National Book Award in the YA category, The Drowned Cities is being marketed as a young adult book, but it is a darker and more brutal story than its predecessor (which had its share of violence). Where Ship Breaker’s story arc was one of escape from a dead end life to a world of greater possibility (with much danger and hardship along the way), The Drowned Cities is a descent into the heart of darkness by its young protagonists. Hopefully, adults won’t be put off by the YA categorization. Though it lacks the narrative complexity of The Windup Girl, admirers of that novel are likely to find much to admire in this one.
Though the novel can be enjoyed strictly on the basis of Bacigalupi’s fluid prose and exciting story, a strong political subtext adds greatly to the interest for readers inclined to examine it. The future of America envisioned in the novel can be traced directly back to world we currently find ourselves in, and The Drowned Cities is firmly in the tradition of the dystopia as cautionary tale. But Bacigalupi avoids the traps of didacticism and preachiness by letting the setting and circumstances speak for themselves. Readers uninterested in this aspect of the book are still in for an exciting ride, but it is the ability to combine environmental, political and economic extrapolation with engaging storytelling and characterization that puts Bacigalupi’s work in the top rank of today’s science fiction. Readers of Bacigalupi’s other work will be familiar with the environmental aspects, but in The Drowned Cities he shows increasing concern with the political antecedents of his future America.
In this future, the country has been inundated by the effects of climate change. The southeast has devolved to a standard of living comparable to today’s undeveloped world as the result of coastal flooding, resource scarcity, and economic and political collapse. What’s left of the economy is based on scavenging resources for recycling, along with providing for only the most basic needs. The northeast is more functional, with “Seascape Boston” and “Manhattan Orleans” referred to as places the novels’ characters would like to escape to, although we haven’t yet seen what these areas are like. The northerners have created an army of augments to patrol the southern border in order to prevent the chaos, violence, and poverty of the south from spreading any further in their direction. These areas, as well as China, are home to powerful corporations that profit from recycling the salvage collected in the south, paying for safe passage through the war zones by trading weapons and ammunition to the local warlords.
Bacigalupi’s critique of America’s political direction goes beyond the inability to take steps to curb climate change. It is clear that the future plight he describes also relates to other aspects of current politics. China’s avoidance of devastation is telling, and can be extrapolated from the fact that China is currently being much more aggressive in pursuing alternative energy technologies to deal with a post-peak oil future than is the U.S., which is falling behind in investment in scientific education and research. China has responded to warming temperatures with massive investments in solar power technology, while in the U.S., politicians pray for rain. As a result, in the future of The Drowned Cities, China has the resources and political will to send peacekeeping forces to America, hoping to improve the situation there. Ironically, the Chinese effort to help is met with about as much enthusiasm among the native population as recent U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What we learn about the history of the conflict in the Drowned Cities also comments on current U.S. political conditions. Along with the United Patriot Front, additional factions include the Army of God and the Freedom Militia, among others. While there is little difference in their tactics and goals–they all claim to want to kill the traitors (any factions other than themselves) and reunite the country–those titles all have echoes in today’s right-wing politics, where demonization of political opponents, intolerance of opposing views, and inability to compromise have become increasingly mainstream.
“The Drowned Cities hadn’t always been broken. People broke it. First they called people traitors and said they didn’t belong. Said these people were good and those people were evil, and it kept going, because people always responded, and pretty soon the place was a roaring hell because no one took responsibility for what they did, and how it would drive others to respond.”
Doctor Mahfouz explains to Mouse and Mahlia that the soldier boys are not “stupid and crazy,” as they assume, but are convinced by their ideals, and are fighting merely “to destroy their enemies.” “’But they call each other traitors,’ Mouse had said. ‘Indeed. It’s a long tradition here. I’m sure whoever first started questioning their political opponents’ patriotism thought they were being quite clever.’” The Drowned Cities attempts to show us what happens when too many people start believing the demagogic politicians and pundits.
I’ve had people tell me that they can’t read Bacigalupi because his stories are too depressing. Typically, they are not denying the importance of the issues his stories raise. Rather, they just don’t want to think about these things, preferring not to engage with this reality, at least not while they’re relaxing with a novel. Bacigalupi is aware of this reaction, and has said that it’s a common one among adults, who tend to feel powerless or cynical when confronted with the need to take action, and so often prefer not to be reminded of the need. He began writing for young adults because they are unlikely to have this reaction, having not yet given up on the potential to change things before they turn out the way his stories describe. In that sense, such stories can be inspirational rather than depressing.
In any case, The Drowned Cities (and Ship Breaker) are not depressing. In fact, the main characters in both novels take actions to improve their own situations, and the door is opened to the potential for the stricken communities to dig themselves out of the holes they have fallen into. Mahlia is an inspiring character in her ultimate refusal to accept the irrationality of her world.
“Done with being shoved around and threatened. Done with the bargaining that always said that if she wanted to live, someone else had to die. Done with armies like the UPF and Army of God and Freedom Militia, who all claimed that they’d do right, just as soon as they were done doing wrong.”
It may be depressing to consider the implications of the future Bacigalupi shows us, but it’s even more depressing to think that we could knowingly go down that road. The hope is that, just as young science fiction fans once grew up to work in the space program, wanting to achieve the space-going future they read about in the ‘40s and ‘50s, today’s young readers will be inspired to begin the work on the political and economic changes that could help us avoid the future seen in these novels. It’s certainly possible, if we can face the facts and work together. We may have to postpone space travel for a while (though I’m not willing to give up yet), but clipper ships powered by solar kite sails are pretty cool, too.