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For my money, Paulo Bacigalupi is one of the few writers of dystopian science fiction right now who's not just channeling the social anomie of the moment, but is gazing out over the ramparts towards the approaching dust cloud. He asks a direct and urgent question that other novelists don't: what would happen if our fossil fuel-driven, environmental havok-wreaking global economy broke down? Would human society have to foresight to adapt, or would it just start to cannibalize itself, reverting to ugly old patterns?
Forget the Hunger Games, with its elaborate Big Brother fantasy -- The Drowned Cities (and its companion novel, Ship Breaker) portrays a more immediate kind of dystopia, a "future" that's already arrived in places like Somalia, the Congo, Iraq, or Afghanistan. It's just not a future that's gotten to our shores. Yet.
Just as importantly, Bacigalupi is a visionary who can write. His novels burn with a quiet, measured intensity, the calm of the language bringing the fear and struggle of his world to vivid life. He doesn’t give his characters easy moral choices, but puts them in a position where doing the right thing is often very dangerous, and being less-than-heroic is sometimes the only way to survive.
The Drowned Cities is a page-turningly grim novel, perhaps a shade or two more intense than it’s companion book, Ship Breaker. Here again, we meet two adolescent characters trying to keep their heads down and make it to adulthood, although not the same two characters from that book, and in a new setting -- near the flooded remnants of Washington, DC. We also have a return of the monstrous half-man, Tool, who plays a more prominent role as both a reluctant ally and a knowing but decidedly unsympathetic observer of human affairs, and is perhaps Bacigalupi’s best character to date. Here, the plot puts its protagonists squarely in the middle of a war between vicious militias of mostly-teenage conscripts, who, as we come to see, are as much victims of their circumstances as anyone else, unable to escape what their exploitative warlords have turned them into.
If that sounds like heavy material for a young adult book, it is, and I don’t know that I’d recommend this one for younger readers, given some frightening characters and scenes of brutality, torture, and enslavement. But, it is, like Ship Breaker, a very good book, framing its moral questions in a sober, even-handed way, and keeping the level of action high. I’m pleased to see that the economy required for shorter works has improved Bacigalupi’s chops at plot and characterization, and look forward to seeing him return to writing grown-up novels with those lessons in hand.
PS. If you haven’t read Ship Breaker, it’s not really a prerequisite, but I’d still suggest that one first, since it introduces Tool and is a bit more of an adventure.
15 of 15 people found this review helpful
I found Shipbreaker a bit of an anticlimax, but loved this. So did my husband (45), son (18), & daughter (15). Subject matter was gritty but beautifully written with a well-paced plot and engaging characters - didn't feel preachy or too earnest at all, though it did have a social "message" about humanity (& man's inhumanity to man), and the narrator did a fabulous job.
6 of 6 people found this review helpful