The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi entered the world of young adult fiction. I read his first effort in that genre, Ship Breaker, a year ago. It was a more straightforward adventure than The Windup Girl but it had all the environmental themes that show up in most of Bacigalupi's fiction rolled into the narrative. Not many writers display the environmental awareness that shows up in Bacigalupi's work and given my education in that field, I always feel drawn to that kind of story. Even without the other elements that makes Bacigalupi's work interesting, I'd read read anything he's write just for that. Fortunately for the readers who don't share my preferences, Bacigalupi is a very good author in other respects as well. The Drowned Cities is a novel that appeals to the adult reader as well. To the point where I wondered if he shouldn't have written this as an adult novel to begin with.
The novel is set in a future Washington D.C. The USA has lost it's spot as most powerful nation in the world and climate change has dramatically altered the coastline. After a failed Chinese attempt at peace keeping, Washington is currently fought over by a number of factions, all hoping to gain control over the former capital as a first step to reunifying the country. To finance their war, they scavenge the city and sell their findings to a number of large corporations always hungry for the world's scarce resources. The communities around the war zone are regularly harvested for fresh recruits, usually children, and slave labour. In this world, Mahlia, a young girl of mixed Chinese American origin grows up. Given the resentment still carried against the Chinese peacekeepers, she is not exactly popular. Even the community she lives in, barely accepts her. The only reason she is allowed to stay is that the only man who could pass for a doctor has taken her on as his assistant. Mahlia runs into deep trouble when patients from opposing factions appear on their doorstep.
The Drowned Cities is connected to Ship Breaker but except for one character who shows up in both novels and a few minor references there is no connection between the stories. It is perfectly possible to read one without having read the other. The details of the world are the same though. Bacigalupi throws in a lot of references to climate change, genetic engineering, biological warfare and scarcity of resources (in particular oil). It is not as obvious as in his work for adults, and not discussed in as much detail, but many of the developments are similar to what happened to the world in the Windup stories (although it they are not set in the same world). Some of the things that have happened to this future Washington have roots in the great, and usually undressed, environmental problems the world faces. You can accept these as a give and ignore this background in favour of a good action story, but for the reader looking for more, there is a whole layer of highly relevant environmental and political issues to sink your teeth in.
I did think the novel was very violent. Apparently the young adult genre leans towards darker tales, with violent acts discussed more explicitly than would have been fitting a few years ago. The war Bacigalupi describes is as barbaric as the reports that have come in from various parts of Africa in recent years. Torture, mutilation and the use for children (often under the influence of some substance of other) are all accepted practices in this war and that doesn't even include the deployment of genetically engineered soldiers. America, it turns out, is not above a bit of brutality when push comes to shove. Ironically, the only pacifist character in the novel is a Muslim. I wonder how many young readers will catch that bit of social commentary. I don't think Bacigalupi gets too graphic, but with Mahlia spending much of the novel one step away from rape, death or mutilation, this book is not suitable for very young readers.
Bacigalupi's exploration of the fallen capital of a once great nation can seem a bit depressing but the motivation of the characters to put themselves in danger is all too human. The various militias may have the guns but that doesn't mean people will put up with anything. Mahlia is a girl who realizes the word has little to offer her. She doesn't shy away from violence and is not afraid to take rash action and it is her rashness that drives the story. More than once her decisions are questionable but her loyalty to her one remaining friend touches those around her. One thing that Bacigalupi did very well is show the reader how limited her view of the world is. She knows it is a large place but circumstances are such, that places beyond the immediate vicinity are shrouded in rumour and hearsay. Or perhaps we should call it the fog of war. Her world is a strange mix of fading Chinese civilization, remnants of past American glory and sheer survival instinct. Not an easy place to stick to the ideals of her rescuer and teacher in the arts of healing.
The Drowned Cities is a noticeably darker book than Ship Breaker. Although Nailer lives in a hard world and has to put his life on the line more than once, it is not the bullet riddled mess Mahlia finds herself in. I also felt Bacigalupi added much more in the way of deeper layers into this story, making it more challenging than his previous effort. With a few different choices, Bacigalupi could have turned this into an adult novel. I'm not sure it would have been better that way, but it was certainly possible. I'm not sure which one of the two I like better. When I was in the right age group, I probably would have said Ship Breaker. Right now, I appreciate a lot of the things Bacigalupi did in this story more than I would have back then. One thing is for sure, Bacigalupi doesn't underestimate his audience. I think I am going to have to revisit his brilliant collection Pump Six and Other Stories, just to tide me over until the next novel. Be it a YA one of an Adult novel, I'll read anything this man writes.
Title: The Drowned Cities
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
First published: 2012