Writing about Reading: The Drowned Cities

June 13, 2012 § 1 Comment

The Drowned Cities
In The Drowned Cities, Paolo Bacigalupi has once again crafted a very compelling tale of survival in a ruined future America. While not quite as strong as Ship Breaker or The Windup Girl, The Drowned Cities is nevertheless a perfect companion piece to both of those books. If you liked them, chances are you’ll like The Drowned Cities.

The Drowned Cities is the tale of Tool, a half-man bred for war, and the “castoff” who crosses his path, a girl named Mahlia. They are an unlikely pair; Tool is a genetically engineered killing machine, while Mahlia is a half-Chinese girl with a missing hand. Both, however, are outliers among outliers–feared and unwanted by the refugees who exist on the outskirts of the Drowned Cities, avoiding the war that is quickly turning a flooded, ruined Washington, D.C., into rubble.

Both Tool and Mahlia are seeking to get away from the Drowned Cities and the vicious “warboys” that make up its armies. But neither can escape, and soon both are pulled together and pulled back to the city and to the war.

The story sags a bit in the middle, but is otherwise a book that’s hard to put down. Bacigalupi has a knack for setting a scene so vividly that you can almost smell swamp’s rotting funk and feel the grime on your skin and taste brackish water in your mouth.

But there’s something beneath the skin of this novel, and it’s similar to what lies beneath the skin of most of Bacigalupi’s other work: a glimpse of a future that could very easily come to pass. Take, for example, this paragraph from the middle of the book:

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.

That, right there, is the theme of The Drowned Cities. Refugees think Mahlia, whose father was a Chinese peacekeeper, is bad luck. The warboys think she’s a traitor. Likewise, the refugees think Tool is a monster, and the warboys see him as a weapon they need to acquire and use. The warboys think the refugees are “just meat in the gears” and the refugees think the warboys are nothing but homicidal savages. And then there are the armies, each saying the other’s followers are traitors. In the Drowned Cities, everyone is an outlier.

The world of The Drowned Cities is grim, it’s brutal, and it’s very bloody. Bacigalupi doesn’t go overboard with the gore, but there are some pretty violent, gut-wrenching scenes. If this ever becomes a movie, it’ll be hard to watch at times. So be warned.

I won’t spoil the ending, but I could easily see the characters from this novel meeting up with the characters from Ship Breaker in a future book. And I want to read that book.

Aw, hell, I want to read anything by Paolo Bacigalupi. He’s that good.


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