Paolo Bacigalupi on His Hopeful Dystopia “The Drowned Cities”
For his latest novel, Paolo Bacigalupi chose to follow up on his National Book Award finalist Ship Breaker with another YA, The Drowned Cities, set in the same basic milieu: the United States a century from now, profoundly changed by global warming. The setting could be called an upbeat dystopia, in that it suggests that despite massive instability, humankind will survive, and there will be some outposts of order.
The protagonist of The Drowned Cities is Mahlia, a war refugee. She lives in a place called Banyan Town with her friend Mouse, helping out a local doctor. When a living war weapon named Tool, gravely wounded, seeks shelter near the village, it wreaks havoc on the lives of the locals, calling down upon them one of the roving armies that criss-cross the war-torn land. Soon, Mahlia and Tool, in an uneasy alliance, find themselves traveling down river while Mouse is brainwashed as a child soldier. The novel is vivid, harrowing, and never loses focus on Mahlia and Mouse, while also showcasing Tool, the war weapon, who is one of the more fascinating intelligent beasts in recent science fiction.
Omni got in touch with Bacigalupi to ask him about The Drowned Cities—and, to start with, about the challenges of writing a second book set in the same future.
“The biggest challenge for me was coming to terms with the fact that The Drowned Cities was going to be a very different book from Ship Breaker,” Bacigalupi told us. “I had intended to continue in the spirit of adventure that Ship Breaker evoked, but The Drowned Cities didn't fit that mould, and it took a long time for me to accept that and just go where the logic of the story dictated.” He also worried that “readers might feel betrayed because the tone is so much darker and the story is so much more intense, but once I decided to write about child soldiers, it meant that violence was always in the air. Give a twelve-year-old an AK and suddenly almost anything can happen on the page. And that's scary because it undermines the expectations of storytelling that demands our fiction be meaningful. I had to fight to keep my characters alive and stay true to the premise of the story.”
Bacigalupi’s future settings tend to feel three-dimensional, yet there isn’t so much information that it slows down the story. According to the author, he does a lot of back-writing that doesn’t make it into the final draft. “But little bits will survive, ideas that I come up with and then decide to keep, so that [for example] when the soldiers have these brands on their cheeks and a pattern of recruitment, or there are coywolv stalking the jungles, those small bits have been written out in more detail in other versions of the book that never survived. I think because I've written so many scenes that describe the characters and settings and world, it means that when I write the final version, I've thought through a lot of versions to come to the final and it yields a richer, more textured setting.”
One of the best parts of The Drowned Cities is the intelligent war-beast Tool. Bacigalupi admitted to being fascinated with Tool. “He emerged on the page when I needed a thug character to be part of Richard Lopez' crew in Ship Breaker, and then he developed into something far more interesting. I've been fascinated with the idea of human-animal hybrids for some time, so in a lot of ways, Tool's bioengineered super-soldier combination of human, tiger, dog, and hyena is just another iteration of my continuing obsession…Tool gives me a chance to explore questions of loyalty and individuality, and I love that he stands outside of humanity, looking at us and judging us.” For Bacigalupi, Tool evokes “the same qualities that I love about the ronin--the masterless samurai--mixed with the raw physical power and contempt for civilization that Conan the Barbarian evokes. I keep thinking that I'd like to write a series of stories just about Tool. At this point, I'm completely obsessed with him.”
In addition to the evocation of Tool, the scenes of small-scale war in The Drowned Cities often have a convincing level of detail to them. One particular sequence in which soldiers are trying to cross a river while taking enemy fire draws favorable comparisons to mainstream descriptions of similar situations in World War II or Vietnam.
For Bacigalupi, the key to bringing such scenes to life lay in a combination of research and playing pretend. “You try to insert yourself into the intensity of a moment that you've never experience personally, and hopefully never will. That said, if you read enough accounts from soldiers about combat, or read or watch war correspondents' descriptions of their experiences, or if you read war blogs, or just watch the wikileaks footage of our gunships shooting civilians in the streets of Baghdad, you start being able to distill certain qualities.”
The apparent lack of cause-and-effect in such situations was of particular interest to Bacigalupi. “Someone is shot, but it's unclear from where. Someone is smashed by falling rubble. Someone shoots or oesn't shoot. Someone trips. And all of it is engulfed in information overload from the explosions of artillery to the screaming of civilians to the sinking of barges. I hope that the experience is viscerally real for the reader, but more than that I hope that it's not something that appears epic or heroic or awesome in that action-thriller way that so many movies use to depict fighting and killing. I didn't want to fetishize war or fighting like that, particularly in the scene you mention.”
If very positive reviews of The Drowned Cities at NPR and elsewhere are any indication, Bacigalupi has succeeded in writing about a difficult subject with depth and a vivid sense of verisimilitude.