Friday, May 25, 2012

The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Mahlia and Mouse are War Maggots, children orphaned by endless bloodshed across future America. The seas have risen and many of our large East-Coast cities have struggled to keep functioning. That struggle leads to violence, the kind of which leaves only the young to deal with the consequences. These child soldiers have inherited and will fight to control the Drowned Cities.

Author Paulo Bacigalupi slammed onto the young adult scene two years back with Ship Breaker. Resources are depleted. Oil is gone. New Orleans has been destroyed by hurricanes and rebuilt multiple times. Nailer, a boy hired to scavenge scrap metal in massive retired oil tankers, manages to find a path to a better life. Nailer desperately tried to take that path, despite opposition from ruthless vultures, specifically his drunken, abusive father.
While Nailer's struggle took place along the Gulf Coast, this story is set hundreds of miles north. Our two War Maggots live with one of the few adults in their small town, Doctor Mahfouz. Mahlia has learned the basics of surgery, despite only having one hand. The other was chopped off by a group of radicals who didn't like Mahlia's Chinese features. Her eyes reminded them of the stronger superpower who tried to intervene and failed to keep the peace in America's new civil war.

Mahlia and Mouse find themselves stuck in an impossible situation involving a genetically modified killing machine and some trigger-happy soldiers who are barely old enough for a driver's license. The two must do horrific things in order to survive. It will change them forever, and they have already been through so much. In the Drowned Cities (the title's initials offer a clue as to where in America they are), they will encounter so much more.

The only character from Ship Breaker is Tool, a genetic cocktail of the most fearsome predators in the wild. Built as a super-soldier, he is parts tiger, wolf, hyena, and man. In the last book, Tool was captured, allowing Nailer to escape. We meet up with him here still captured but not for long.

Tool's kind is bred for war and loyalty, but he is an exception to the rule. He has no master and his character grounds both books with one of the most rational and objective voices. His comments raise questions of free will, sacrifice, and finding sense out of a magnitude of death. Tool joins Mahlia to find Mouse after the boy is captured and recruited by the group of young soldiers.

Bacigalupi has a grim, realistic handle on what the future may hold: depleted resources, rising seas, and different factions grasping for hope, answers, and weapons. I especially appreciate the fact that his vision of the future is a global one. We meet many different cultures and ethnicities in his books, which carry on the theme of globalization that William Gibson and Neal Stephenson introduced in their novels of the 80's and 90's.

Both ship breaking and child soldiers are realities in parts of the world like Bangladesh and Africa. Transplanting them to an industrialized nation like America helps readers see the frightening nature of such things up close. The brief, familiar glimpses of the the country we know today are part of the appeal of reading a dystopia set in a future America. The author slips them in ever so subtly, and finding them is quite rewarding.

Fans of dystopian science fiction should find Bacigalupi's novels to be authentic and very satisfying. They are masterfully written adventures, and I am already hoping for a third one.

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