Review of “The Drowned Cities“ by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Drowned Cities is a companion novel to the prize-winning book Ship Breaker, taking place in the same post-apocalyptic world but sharing only one character from that book.

In this harsh, intense setting, climate change has created a number of “drowned cities” in the former United States, and brutal warlords vie both for dominance over desperate survivors, and for control over the diminishing supplies of resources still being scavenged from the wreckage. China, now the hegemonic world power, sent peacekeepers to America for more than a decade, but they finally pulled out in the face of relentless hostility and armed resistance. Their abrupt withdrawal left not only anarchy, but a host of “castoffs”: mixed-race children who are hated for their physical evocation of China’s dominance. When these “war maggots” are noticed by any of the warring factions, they are mutilated or killed as “collaborators.”

Mahlia is one of the castoffs who has so far survived, but with only a stump where her right hand should be. She was saved from amputation of all of her extremities by Mouse, another war orphan. He distracted the Army of God – one of the warring factions – while she got away.

While on a hunt for food, Mahlia and Mouse encounter Tool, a character from Ship Breaker, who is an “augment.” Augments had been created to fight wars, and Tool was fashioned out of a mixture of DNA from tiger, dog, hyena, and man. Unlike other augments, Tool has evolved to be an independent agent, and moreover, has recently been in captivity. As the story begins, Tool escapes his imprisonment, but is injured. When Mahlia and Mouse find him, Mahlia sees the opportunity for a strong and wily protector, and decides to help him heal. Mahlia goes back home to get medicine, but discovers that their squat has been taken over by Tool’s pursuers, the United Patriot Front, or UPF. Only one of them, a young soldier named Ocho, shows any humanity. Mahlia manages to trick the rest, and runs back to Tool and Mouse.

The three of them harbor outdated notions of decency and loyalty. Instead of escaping, they try to save others and themselves. It is no longer the kind of world, however, that rewards moral behavior. You want them to make it, but you know that the triumph of goodness is only a quixotic dream in this crazed new world. Everyone does what he or she must to survive, and often that means sacrificing one’s humanity. As Tool observes:

“‘Human beings hunger for killing, that is all. It only takes a few politicians to stoke division, or a few demagogues encouraging hatred to set your kind upon one another. And then before you know it, you have a whole nation biting on its own tail, going round and round until there is nothing left but the snapping of teeth. Destroying a place like the Drowned Cities is easy when you have human beings to work with. Your kind loves to follow. My kind at least has an excuse, but yours?’ Tool smiled again. ‘I have never seen a creature more willing to rip out its neighbor’s throat.’”

However, if anyone can change the darkness to light, it is those few who have not yet been deadened by violence. In this story, we hope for Mahlia and Mouse and Tool and the others who still have something decent left inside them, but we know the odds are stacked against them.

Discussion: Paolo Bacigalupi is an incredible world-builder. And yet, he doesn’t get hung up on his amazing scenarios. Rather, he uses his stark, unforgettable backdrops to highlight his characterization of personalities who reflect the chaotic forge from which they were shaped.

Both of these companion books focus on how the nature of relationships change when the world is broken, and “normal” family structures become irrelevant. In Bacigalupi’s world (and in our own, in many cases, for that matter) love, support and loyalty are not a function of blood relationships. So what makes these people cling to one another and be willing to die for one another? The old Darwinian arguments just don’t apply.

Another issue Bacigalupi addresses is the short-sightedness of greed and power-lust. No energy is being invested into creating a better future, because all of peoples’ energies are going into short-term personal gains. What happens when all of the world’s resources are depleted? No one is willing to make the sacrifices or take the risks to plan that far ahead.

The cruelty and injustice of war are explored in a number of different ways, from the terrible and tragic aleatory nature of survival; the brutalizing effect of war on soldiers: making recruits do things so vile, there is no going back – there is only willful blindness and further complicity to ease the pain of what was before; the recruitment of children, who can be more easily molded; and the excuse of war and patriotism in some cases to realize personal obsessions with cruelty and sadism. The warlords win little battles for worthless territory, leaving in their wake only death, destruction, and thirst for revenge.

But Bacigalupi is clever in his portrayals; he doesn’t numb us or fill us with skepticism by painting only in black or white. For example, although the children who are killers become so horrific they even hate themselves, there remain those in their lives who believe in them still, who understand that war takes away the old definitions of right and wrong, and who are willing to see them as redeemable beyond the crimes they have committed. Goodness still remains, here and there – enough so that we can react to these characters with sympathy, and view this dark, bleak world with a modicum of hope.

The characters in this book are terrific. Mahlia is, on the surface, a weak girl with only one hand and tell-tale Chinese features. But where her strength lies is in her survival instinct, her street-smarts, and in her sense of justice, as she has come to understand it. Ocho is similar in ways to Mahlia. He may not be Chinese, but he is branded (both inside and out) with the mark of the UPF. Somehow, he has retained a sense of right and wrong, and Mahlia can still detect something human in his eyes, “some bit of softness in this hard scarred boy….”

My favorite character though is Tool, the non-human who is the most human of all of them; the giant lethal monster who wants to survive, but who values love and loyalty. The definition of human, for Bacigalupi, becomes as malleable as the definition of family, and as affecting.

Evaluation: Bacigalupi is an exceptionally creative narrator adept at visual narration that makes tangible his unforgiving landscapes. His writing reminds me of China Mieville, but Bacigalupi is more accessible and more “realistic”: nothing of which he writes is unforeseeable. He lets his readers draw their own conclusions about the societies he fashions from the rationales put forth for killings and from the nature of the victims who are chosen. He reminds us that fear and greed and violence lie just under the surface, and that unless we struggle to keep it all under control and to focus on our commonalities rather than our differences, we too could face the atrocities of his dark future world.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2012


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11 Responses to Review of “The Drowned Cities“ by Paolo Bacigalupi

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    I’m probably not smart enough for this book.

  2. Sandy says:

    You know, I actually rented the audio of Shipbreakers from the library, and only got through the first disc and had to return it. I sure wish I’d have been a little more diligent with it, but I think I was in overload or something at the time. The world-building was incredible you are right. Maybe I need to revisit…

  3. softdrink says:

    Doesn’t baci mean kiss?

  4. I admit that I just skimmed because I haven’t read Ship Breaker yet and want to be as surprised as possible going into the reading experience. I’m glad to see that this one got such a high rating from you.

  5. Staci@LifeintheThumb says:

    A student read the first one and really enjoyed it. Makes me think I should pick it up later this year and see what this series is about!!

  6. cbjamess says:

    I am a big fan of his short stories, but I couldn’t make it through The Windup Girl. When I first saw that he’d written for the YA market I was a little disappointed. My first reaction was, here’s another author trying to cash-in. I also wish more people would write for the OA market. And I think there are already more than enough dystopian futures in the YA market.

    But if the books are good, then all bets are off.

    • I couldn’t make it through The Windup Girl either! Too much violence towards women for one thing. The YA books don’t have that – (there is just equal opportunity violence!) :–)

  7. aartichapati says:

    I like that you are aware of your rating biases and tell us to ignore them when you yourself are unable to ignore them 😉

    I realized how immature I still am when I saw that there was a character named “Tool” and giggled.

  8. You picked quite a quote to pull out! I saw Bacigalupi at a reading, and he said that he’d written a direct sequel to Ship Breaker and eventually trashed all of it except for one sentence. Which sentence? The one about politicians and hatemongers chasing their own tail until there was nothing left except the snapping of teeth. That image was where the entire world of The Drowned Cities first emerged, and you put your finger on it.


    My autographed copy is inscribed, “No future is inevitable.”

    (I’m late to the party due to internet outage from the storm — but what a treat to have some low-tech time and a stack of goodies in my RSS feed.)

  9. P.S. Tool’s my fave too. Someone at the reading asked if we’d see more of Tool, and Bacigalupi said, “OH YES. I have plans for Tool.”

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