Lowdown: A cast out girl fights for personal and cultural survival in a post apocalyptic USA.
Coincidences take place all over all the time. The Drowned Cities, the latest book from Paolo Bacigalupi and a sequel of sorts to his Ship Breaker is so full of them that it becomes obvious there are no coincidences here at all; rather what we have on our hands with this YA (young adult) science fiction novel is a carefully tailored analogy of our world today. When even the initials of Drowned Cities correspond to D.C., where the story takes place, I can tell what the author’s intentions are. Having read the book I can vouch for his total success: Drowned Cities is an excellent read, both because of its gripping adventure filled tale and because of the analogy it creates between a post global warming apocalyptic world and the USA of today.
The story of The Drowned Cities can be summarized in two sentences if one wishes to. There really is not much happening, especially not in the book’s first half; but as with Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, the devil is in the details. Unlike Windup Girl, we do not receive as thorough a description of the world things are set in; there is a hidden assumption the reader is already familiar with the author’s detailed post global warming apocalyptic world, and specifically its post USA incarnation as per Ship Breaker. So we do have details but these are not the setting’s details but rather the most detailed descriptions of the simplest actions and what these convey on our hero characters.
Our hero is Mahlia, a young girl who is a victim of circumstances. Her mother was an American but her father a Chinese peacekeeper soldier who returned to civilized China after it became clear the rabble left of what used to be America is not interested in peace. Mahlia fell victim to a religious local militia who, not liking anything that came from China, cut off her right arm and was about to kill her if it wasn’t for the bravery of Mouse, a fellow kid. Now both Mahlia and Mouse live together with their caretaker, Dr Mahfouz, in the ruins of an old Accelerated Age town along the Potomac. Mahlia serves as Mahfouz’ left hand, aiding the ill sighted doctor at his work, but the locals are not fond of her and her race. Then Mahlia and Mouse stumble upon the seriously injured tool, the genetically engineered half man warrior from Ship Breaker, and all hell breaks loose: the world as they know it finds itself in the middle of a war between rivaling militias of child warriors, and these have no appreciation for doctors. Definitely no appreciation for the half Chinese.
As I started reading The Drowned Cities I thought it a nice coincidence that the world described in it feels a lot like Afghanistan, right hand removal and all; I found it amusing to think the book’s Afghanistan like world is actually today’s USA. I found it an odd coincidence that it is the Chinese that are portrayed as the civilized people sending their army to help the American rabble lead a good life when the Americans seem intent on living by the sword. I found it amusing the only rational person in the book, the only person who sees the anarchy of the militia led world of the futuristic USA for what it truly is, is a Muslim by the name of Mahfouz. Eventually, I realized there are just too many coincidences about: surely this is all a carefully packaged plan by Bacigalupi serving to issue us with a warning. This time around, the warning is not about the world we will be leaving our children, a world of rising temperatures, diseases and no easy energy in the form of fossil fuels. This time around the warning is to do with the world of the here and now: a world where we are not too tolerant of others’ views and culture, especially if they’re in China or if they’re Muslims; a world where religion has too much of a saying; a world where we let the power of our guns solve our problems, not realizing we are only digging our own holes in the process; a world where books, literature and knowledge are becoming less and less fashionable in the face of easy superficiality.
I started reading The Drowned Cities thrilled with excitement over the action it portrays. There really is a minimal number of idle pages on this otherwise high octane action book (again I will stress: action packed despite everything happening could be summarized in a few brief sentences). However, as I started figuring out the analogy at the core of this book I became even more thrilled: I became excited to see how effective this seemingly unpretentious work, aimed at teens, can be. In my book, The Drowned Cities is science fiction at its best.
Overall: A thrilling adventure wrapped in a thrilling analogy and deserving 4.5 out of 5 stars.