Review: Paolo Bacigalupi's new novel offers a nightmare future, with echoes of now

Dark fantasy epics, as every hunger-gamer knows, are all the rage at the box office and on cable. The latest New Yorker to clog my mailbox is the special "Science Fiction Issue." And I'm happy to report that Paolo Bacigalupi, Colorado's own doctor of dystopia -- who recently discussed his creative process in this interview with Westword's Colin Bane -- is in fine form in his latest post-apocalyptic novel, The Drowned Cities.

Bacigalupi, who lives in Paonia, made a splash three years ago with his stunning debut novel, The Windup Girl, which Time listed as one of the top ten works of fiction (not just sci-fi) of the year. But, as recounted in our 2010 profile of him, Bacigalupi had actually served a long apprenticeship in the bunkers of genre fiction before that breakthrough.

His subsequent venture into the young-adult field, 2010's Ship Breaker, won the Michael L. Printz award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. The follow-up, The Drowned Cities, has been getting buzz well in advance of its mid-May release date. I finally got my hands on a copy and downed it in just a few gulps.

This isn't a sequel to Ship Breaker -- as Bacigalupi explains in his interview with Bane, his attempt to launch a series from that work resulted in what he deemed a "fairly terrible book" and was shelved. But this new venture does involve one carryover character, the "augment" supersoldier named Tool, who's actually a kind of bioengineered pastiche of man, dog, tiger and other assorted predators. And like much of the author's earlier work, the focus here is on young outcasts struggling to survive in a world ravaged by war, scarce resources and drastic climate change -- which, in this case, has left America's great coastal cities half-submerged and other settlements choked in jungle foliage.

Our protagonists are Mahlia and Mouse, two "war maggots" orphaned by the storm, who try to stay a step ahead of the endless turf battles of fanatical warlords. When Mouse is shanghaied into one brutal children's army, Mahlia forges an inevitable alliance with the war beast, Tool, in a desperate effort to get him back. There's a definite Joe Bob Briggs flavor to the action that follows. Limbs fly. Heads roll. Fingers get severed, guts get ripped open. Faces get branded and hearts get chomped.

For all its gore, though, The Drowned Cities manages, like the best works of its genre, to cast an uncomfortable light on our present state of paralytic bickering over critical issues such as energy policy and climate change. We learn that the kudzu-infested ruins the armies are in the process of devouring was once a great nation before it imploded into extremist factions, all accusing each other of treason and defying the aid of Chinese peacekeeping missions. "No one ever wins, here," Mahlia tells a colonel who seems bent on saving his village by annihilating it. "Bunch of dogs fighting over scraps of don't even know what it is."

With the brisk pace and emotional rawness now expected in the young adult market, yet with enough dark subtleties and glancing nods to current affairs to appeal to adults as well, The Drowned Cities is an oddly elegiac dive into lost opportunities and vanished empires. In such a grim and sharply realized world, there can only be one winner: the reader.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast