“The Drowned Cities”: a much needed sci-fi thriller

By Emma Talkoff

For anyone still mired in the world of “The Hunger Games,” this latest young adult offering from celebrated sci-fi author Paolo Bacigalupi is sure to at least temporarily fill the void. As seems to be the trend with current YA novels, “The Drowned Cities” focuses on the exploits of a pair of downtrodden but scrappy teenagers attempting to make their way in a futuristic, dystopian world. In Bacigalupi’s vision of future America, rapid environmental change has led to widespread famine, overcrowding of remaining cities, and a preponderance of supernatural swamp-creatures which stalk the newly formed jungles of the eastern seaboard. Conventional government and religion have, for the most part, collapsed, giving way to a variety of superstitious cults, roving gangs, and a few powerful warlords who continue to fight the battles of previous centuries. Fear and disease are widespread, and although we rarely meet characters who have prospered in this recognizable-yet-broken future, it is assumed that someone, somewhere, has gotten the better deal, and it is up to our heroes to rise from their humble—in fact miserable—beginnings to find a better life. The story centers on Mahlia and Mouse, a pair of misfits who team up with a man-wolf hybrid as the set out across the swamps of future America.

Following the precedent set by “Ship Breaker” and Bacigalupi’s Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel “The Windup Girl,” the author’s strength comes through in his ability to effortlessly forge remarkably detailed and plausible worlds within the first few pages of the novel. By unceremoniously introducing us to the strange features of everyday life in his world—Washington, D.C. drowned in swampland and infested with hybrid predators; a religion based on the scavenging of oil; a strain of prehistoric fruit bred to be new again—Bacigalupi draws us in to these bizarre and complex dystopias and makes them seem not only possible but likely. Following the tradition of the most successful dystopian novels, Bacigalupi creates worlds which are scary because they rely not only on fantasy but also magnify and extend the worst aspects of modern times. What takes these settings a step further is the imaginative spark that Bacigalupi brings; he not only creates disturbing futures but infuses them with subtly supernatural elements and quirky modes of survival that make his stories cool. A revolutionary new technology here, a clever use of an abandoned building there—these additions make decaying urban settings seem less desperate and more exciting.

“Ship Breaker” and “The Drowned Cities” aren’t for everyone, and they certainly don’t satisfy the needs of a stereotypical teen reader—there’s little romance or social drama, the plot builds gradually, and Bacigalupi’s dystopias, interesting though they may be, do require some investment and willingness to accept the bizarre on the part of the reader. The main characters of these books have never struck me as particularly complex or thoughtful, but then again, perhaps as young adults struggling to merely survive in a somewhat post-apocalyptic world, it makes sense that these protagonists have less time for introspection and witty dialogue than the heroes of other, less alligator-fraught books. To me, Bacigalupi’s novels are the perfect antidote to the shallow, vampire-bitten aisles of most YA sections, while still providing an action-y, sci-fi thrill to those of us who miss Suzanne Collins.