Book Review: Drowned Cities, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Picking up in some ways where Shipbreaker left off, The Drowned Cities is an extension of that world, although it follows mostly different characters on a rather different type of journey. It shows that Bacigalupi has put some serious thought into worldbuilding and has the capacity to develop a much larger and more complex interconnected series around this world; and, critically, each of these books can also stand on its own and be read individually without losing the threads of the world and the characters. In a world where serials are popular and standalones are starting to feel unusual, this hybrid approach is striking; have your cake and eat it too, as it were.

In Shipbreaker, readers were introduced to a world where environmental catastrophe had devastated the world, leaving people salvaging stranded ships for supplies that could be sold to the highest bidder. Massive firms essentially made slaves of children, the only ones small enough to wind deep into the hulls of ancient oil tankers in search of commodities like copper, with fortunes that could change on the stroke of a sudden find or a storm, as they did for our characters in the novel.

The Drowned Cities takes place in the same world, but with only one familiar character: Tool, the half-man with a fate that remained uncertain at the end of Shipbreaker. Still set in a futuristic United States, the novel looks at what happens after peacekeepers have come and gone in a vain attempt to impose order on the warring nation, which is filled with rival packs, warlords, and groups struggling for control of the country and its resources. The more organised northern region of the country has established a barrier to keep the rabble out, sending those outside its protection into panic and chaos as they struggle to survive in a war zone.

The fact that Bacigalupi chose to divide the nation into North and South hasn’t escaped my notice; he hasn’t explored the Western reaches of the country at all currently, focusing on the East instead, and he may have plans to expand, so we’ll see what happens across the continental divide. But in terms of his decision to position the North as a place of safety, order and sanctuary and the South as a place of chaos, he’s reinforcing some troubling stereotypes about the US South and the people who live there.

The suggestion that the South would devolve into chaos while the North would retain some values is a reminder of the superiority many Northerners have in interactions with the South, considering their way of life as well as their history ‘better.’ The US South is heavily characterised by poverty, but it’s also stereotyped as a place filled with racist separatists—as though the North contains none of these types, and as though none of them would become a problem in the event of a total breakdown in social order. The North has neo-Nazi groups, extremist Christian organisations, and more, and all of them could potentially destabilise the country in the event of war.

Why assume it would be the South that would behave this way? Why not the North? Why not, in fact, flip the narrative to challenge norms about the South? This particular series has done some interesting things in terms of race and class, though it does suffer from the tendency to present ambiguously racialised characters as though a simple racial mixture/we are all becoming one race approach is the solution to race issues in science fiction. It could have been pushed even further, turning, perhaps, a white-dominated North into a place of utter chaos and a racially-mixed South into a hub of global trade, peace, and organisation in a remade United States.

The fact is, though, that it didn’t. One thing it did do, however, was explore the inevitable consequence of years of civil war and struggles between individual groups battling for territory: the dwindling numbers of competent, qualified soldiers. Child soldiers are a big part of The Drowned Cities, as are the people little older than children who lead them. Both of the protagonists in the novel have harrowing experiences at the hands of child soldiers that shape their lives and personalities, and their stories were clearly drawn from the real-world narratives of child soldiers around the world.

When the adults are dying because they’ve killed each other, but ideological furore still grips people, children are left to carry the guns and march through the landscape, fighting wars they may not understand against people, often other children, they have no beef with. The Drowned Cities probes into some of the ways in which children are indoctrinated into warfare and forced to take up arms against each other, and how that changes the psyche of a child, and in turn a generation.

As our characters set out across a hostile landscape filled with dangerous forces from within and without, we see the remains of Washington, DC, warlords bent on imposing their own idealised version of the United States, and a strange, twisted version of what the country once was and how it’s seen through the lenses of the future. Bacigalupi poses an interesting question here, challenging the reader to think about how people in the future might think about the United States when they’re trying to rebuild it, and whether they would want to or even could replicate what modern people think of as core values of the nation.

Though I struggle with this series thanks to its many flaws, it also intrigues me because of the detailed worldbuilding, fascinating characters, and experiments with a world, and United States, of a future that isn’t entirely beyond the imagination.