Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Drowned Cities: Paolo Bacigalupi

I have to say, if this is how Bacigalupi treats kids, I don't know if I'm ready for how he's going to work with grownups. The Drowned Cities is a gruelling read, particularly when I kept remembering that this is a follow-up to Ship Breaker, which was set in the same world and equally aimed at the YA market. I'm kind of a fan of the increase in what they're calling Young Adult fiction, and not for the obvious reason that it's nice to see kids reading books instead of playing computer games or setting fire to shopping malls or whatever it is that the young folks are doing these days. I like the increasing importance of the YA market because the prurience of the US publishing scene puts constraints on what the writers for that market can say in print. When writers can't spice things up by throwing in sex and violence and bad language, they have to shock you by such novel tactics as writing involving characters and thought provoking situations, and that's always good.

That said, Bacigalupi doesn't pull very many punches. Like Ship Breaker, The Drowned Cities does very good work setting up the characters and blocking in the ruined world, and then rushes its plot, trying to cram too much into the last hundred pages. And, like Ship Breaker, it uses a Bubba Rogowski, in the shape of Tool, a bio-engineered killing machine who helps the undersized main characters for mysterious reasons of his own when all the adult humans are just out for themselves. Tool was almost a marginal character in Ship Breaker, appearing late in the action to save the day as a deus ex machina. In The Drowned Cities, he's a foreground character in his own right, leaving me wondering if Bacigalupi is stealthily writing the story of Tool from the perspective of a series of different protagonists. Which would be a perfectly cool thing to do, but Tool is a little bit too awesome, and I think Bacigalupi is too good a writer, and too ambitious, to fall into the trap of falling in love with his cool character and letting him getting all Fonzified. Time will tell.

Ship Breaker focused on the marginal lives of salvage workers and the things people had to do to get by in an impoverished world; The Drowned Cities moves further into the collapsed USA and focuses on the consequences of endless civil war in a failed state. Just as Ship Breaker started off from something which happens right now and made it the future of a flooded USA, The Drowned Cities transposed contemporary African warlordism and the use of child soldiers into a collapsed USA become so ungovernable than even Chinese peacekeepers have written it off as hopeless, abandoning it to chaos and increasingly futile bloodshed. It's the East Coast of the USA reimagined as the worst of Somalia and Uganda. Often, SF takes things we're doing right now and shows us what the world will be like if we go on doing the same thing until it destroys us; Bacigalupi is doing something even more interesting; showing us a world where people in our future are doing the things that less fortunate people are doing right now. 

One of the most important things which fiction does is to show us the world as other people see it; it gives us a way to understand things and to empathise with other points of view. By that test, Bacigalupi is doing something potentially very influential; he's putting a story in front of a lot of teenagers which shows them that the troubles of the world right now could be the troubles of their own children. There are two very important lessons in that. The obvious one, of course, is that they should be doing something to stop things getting worse. The less obvious one is the more important one. There's a tendency to shrug off the troubles of Africa and the Middle East; without ever saying it, a lot of the media attitude boils down to "They just be like dat, in dose places." Bacigalupi is making the point that if it got hit hard enough, the privileged West could be just like Africa is now. And thus, that the long-suffering people in the world's trouble spots right now are people just like us, and deserve the help and respect we'd expect for ourselves. 

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