In 2011 Paolo Bacigalupi won the Michael L. Printz award with Ship Breaker and this year the companion novel The Drowned Cities has been appearing on a lot of Printz-contenders lists. The Drowned Cities definitely ticks a lot of ‘award winning’ boxes and delivers on a number of different fronts to result in a great – if not disturbingly acute – read. First off, more than its predecessor, The Drowned Cities is a war book, featuring the usual casualties of any war: the kids. However, everything is set in the same world as Ship Breaker: at once bleak, raw and highly believable. Also, it’s one of the few books this year so far that has a true “multi-cultural” feel to it, something that the Printzers might also want in a book.
Because Mahlia – the daughter of a peacekeeper and a Drowned Cities woman – has Chinese features, she is a target in the war between the different (war) factions . It’s in one of the attacks that Mouse rescues the castoff Mahlia. Despite only having one arm (the other hand was chopped off and is now a stump) she becomes a much needed medical assistant to Dr Mahfouz. Mouse, on the other hand, is an orphan, also in Dr Mahfouz’s care. While Mahlia’s father – a peacekeeper – just left, his parents died in a random attack. Random attacks, orphaned kids, kids recruited to be boy soldiers, this is the bleak reality of the damaged world in The Drowned Cities. For war maggots like Mahlia and Mouse, the future is hopeless, violence only begetting more violence. Bacigalupi, though, explains how “The Drowned Cities hadn’t always been broken. People broke it.” In the world of The Drowned Cities (a world set in the USA) “no price is too high, and no fight can be surrendered. They [people] aren’t fighting for money, or power or control. Not really. They’re fighting to destroy their enemies. So even if they destroy everything around them, it’s worth it, because they know that they’ll have destroyed the traitors.” It’s a pretty depressing story, one in which violence is both random and the most obvious solution to any civil war scenario.
However, even though Mahlia and Mouse are the two human protagonists, the main “attraction” if you will of this book is the half-man and augment Tool, who’s actually the true embodiment of a war in which things spiral ever more out of control until you get something that is utterly unmanageable. Tool first showed up in Ship Breaker. Different from the rest of his race, he still does not pledge allegiance to just one master and does not lose his will to live once his master dies. Instead, Tool is all about the survival instinct, a master at reading any given war situation. Tool was bred for war, and now actually surpasses the expectations of his breed by surviving this long. It is both ironic and only fitting that things start to change for Mahlia and Mouse once they encounter a heavily wounded Tool, who has just escaped from his captors, the troops of Colonel Stern of the UPF. In the jungle, Tool forces Mahlia to get medicine by keeping Mouse hostage. When Mouse gets captured and recruited into the UPF, Mahlia and Tool form a hesitant alliance as Mahlia has had enough of running away from the violence, but rather wants to enter into the warzone of the Drowned Cities to rescue Mouse who once saved her too.
Bacigalupi’s world is both alienating and completely convincing. Reading this almost feels like Children of Men in the jungle of Apocalypse Now. In a world hit by global warming, global political powers have shifted significantly. Nothing in The Drowned Cities is unbelievable, though, far from it: people destroying people for the sake of destroying things, not knowing any more what the initial reason was? China as the new center of civilization and the USA the main warzone, “because no one took responsibility for what they did, and how it would drive others to respond”… nothing here is fantastical. The (geo)political message is definitely more overt in The Drowned Cities, and unlike in Ship Breaker we get an idea of how this new world order – or rather new world chaos – came about: the sea levels have risen so much that part of countries or whole cities and countries are now ‘drowned’. Some countries thought ahead: China for instance managed to save its main cities. The United States, on the other hand, did not manage to do the same thing because of internal disputes, leading to civil wars. China then sent in peacekeepers to stop the fighting and killing, but once it was obvious that the situation was way beyond their control, they left and different war lords and factions like Army of God or United Patriots Front started to take over. Now they just fight for territory. Also, the way new boy soldiers are recruited is definitely not a figment of Bacigalupi’s imagination. We only have to think of child soldiers in Somalia, Uganda, Congo or Myanmar, and we know that the way Mouse is broken in, is the way it also happens in those countries where war militia make use of children and make monsters of men.
The Drowned Cities is despite its themes of war hostilities, child soldiers, acts of barbarism not without hope. The hope here lies in the humanity and humaneness of its characters, Mahlia and Mouse, but also the half-man Tool who discovers that he is more than his breed. The Drowned Cities is Paolo Bacigalupi at his best. By just enhancing and switching around a couple of present-day realities Bacigalupi shows us a world that could be our global future. However, he’s not being preachy about it, but instead shows what people do in extreme and hopeless situations. A scary vision, but hopefully one that is still avoidable.