THE NEGATIVE ZONE #002: THE DROWNED CITIES by PAOLO BACIGALUPI
by Andrew Neal
When I was younger, I never would have thought I’d get tired of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, but the rest of the world caught up with my tastes and now it’s all over the place. Turn over a rock and out comes a zombie. Roll over a log and discover a plucky, heroic young girl surviving the harsh future against all odds. Dredge the flooded streets of an ancient ruined American city and find an almost indestructible man-animal hybrid named Tool.
Actually, wait. That last one sounds pretty cool. Count me back in on the post-apocalyptic thing.
Tool is one of the characters in Paolo Bacigalupi’s latest book, The Drowned Cities. He’s a half-man, or a dog-face, depending on which character is talking about him. Tool is one of several important characters in this book. Some of the others include Mahlia, a not-really-very-plucky, heroic young girl surviving the harsh future against all odds, Mouse, Mahlia’s dear friend who is in fact rather plucky, and Ocho, a sergeant in a squad of warboys who serve a warlord based in the ruins of Washington DC. None of the characters struck me as unique on their own, but by weaving the characters’ story threads together and apart, Bacigalupi created tension, character growth, and an exciting story.
This book is aimed at young adult readers, but it had a good amount in common with Bacigalupi’s adult novel, The Windup Girl. Both are set in a world (possibly the same world) in which the planet’s oil is used up, both feature genetically modified plant and animal hybrids, and both deal with the concept of beings created by man who struggle against genetically-induced loyalty to their masters.
Most of the differences between the novels are matters of degrees: for example, both books include instances of violent, dehumanizing sex. In The Windup Girl, it’s explicit. In The Drowned Cities, the reader sees the before and after, but not the act itself. Bacigalupi doesn’t shy away from the atrocities of war in his book for young readers, but he doesn’t go into all the details. I appreciate this. I think it’s important for an author not to lie when he’s writing. This is Bacigalupi’s book, and he could have written it any way he chose, but he embedded the elements of war so strongly in his fantastic setting that it added a level of truthfulness that may otherwise have been missing. He convinced me.
I don’t mean that he made me believe that dog-men are real or that Washington DC had been flooded; I mean he convinced me that the world he created was consistent and real, and that the characters within acted and reacted in as truthful a manner as possible considering their fictional surroundings. This is the highest praise I can give to a book. I highly recommend The Drowned Cities.
And hey: I haven’t even mentioned yet that The Drowned Cities is described on the dust jacket as a companion piece to Bacigalupi’s previous young adult novel, Ship Breaker. I haven’t read Ship Breaker yet; I decided to read The Drowned Cities first so that I could find out if it works on its own. This is something I am obsessed with in genre literature: the tendency toward publishing “books” that are actually just really long chapters. If you’ve read the previous six paragraphs you know I think The Drowned Cities is a fantastic book, and not just a chapter or addendum. I intend to read Ship Breaker very soon; hopefully I’ll get to recommend it just as highly as The Drowned Cities.
The Negative Zone #003 (Friday October 5) will be about the comic series Prophet by Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, and Giannis Milonnogiannis.