Set in the same ragged, war-torn, post-peak oil future as 2010’s Printz Award-winning Shipbreaker, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Drowned Cities takes place in and around the titular region of the used-to-be United States—the old capitol, in particular. On the surface the novel is a survival story, following Mahlia, a young woman, as she sets out with Tool, the half-man familiar to readers of Shipbreaker, to rescue her only constant companion, Mouse. However, where Shipbreaker was predominantly concerned with extrapolation on climate change and ecology, The Drowned Cities is a novel deeply engaged in social commentary on child soldiers, politics, race, and the awful ouroboros effects of war.
The word everyone is bandying about in discussing this novel, “brutal,” does fit the necessary framework. However, so do “honest,” and “complex,” and (if I may cheat and use several words) “lit through with moments of compassion and humanity.” The Drowned Cities is a complicated book, and perhaps my favorite of all of Bacigalupi’s to date, because it engages thoroughly with layers of kindness, harshness, empathy, and, yes, brutality. And, because this bears mentioning before getting any further, it’s also a book entirely driven by a powerful, self-directed, multi-faceted young woman of color—a woman who forges alliances, makes war-plans, does the rescuing, and survives at all costs, while also coming to terms with her history, her desire for revenge, and the world that she lives in.
The lead protagonist, Mahlia, is bounded in on every side by violence—against her, against the few people she cares for, and also outward in self-defense and vengeance. (Though interestingly, sexual violence is only directly mentioned once, near the end of the volume—it’s kind of bizarrely refreshing to see a novel’s threats of violence against a woman not be entirely mediated by her womanhood, but rather by her sheer humanity; the torture she endures is the same torture a young man would endure. Additionally, there are specific mentions of young women being recruited to soldier. The book does not narrow women’s suffering only to sexual suffering, though it also acknowledges that possibility with the presence of the nailshed girls in every town the war reaches. In this way “realism” doesn’t simply translate to “women are always and only going to be raped.”)
Mahlia’s race—her mother was black, her father Chinese—is actually more significant a danger to her than her gender; it is a mark for death in the current political and cultural climate of the Drowned Cities. Having been left behind by a peacekeeper father when they gave up on their humanitarian mission in the Cities, she is considered a castoff at best, and a collaborator at worst. Before the novel begins, she was captured by a pack of soldiers, who cut off her right hand, but was rescued by her compatriot Mouse. The interrelations of her identities, her history, and her understanding of herself are a moving, wrenching underpinning to an already-engaging story. She does not consider herself Chinese; she considers herself Drowned Cities, through and through. Her cultural identity is effaced by her racial identity in the eyes of others, though, and survival is a matter of negotiation between identities. The balance between brute survival and actually living is a constant struggle in this novel, where devastation wars with a fight to keep the positive things that do exist in one’s life.
For example, the relationship between Mahlia and Mouse is both a driving force and a point of light in the novel. Their intense, emotional bond is what inspires Mouse to save her before the novel opens by throwing rocks at the soldiers and distracting them into a chase; that bond is also what drives Mahlia to set off on a seemingly-impossible mission to rescue him after he is unwillingly recruited into the United Patriot Front. The developing relationship between Tool and Mahlia as they travel together is another strong point. In a book this unrelentingly brutal, and not brutal for the sake of shock value but for the sake of honesty, there is a real necessity to balance the reality of horror with the reality of life—that there are moments of compassion, and moments of connection, despite whatever else is happening.
Bacigalupi deftly manipulates those moments of compassion and connection from the reader, also, with regard to the Dog Company—the child-soldiers whom Mouse, re-dubbed Ghost, is forced to join. At first, through Mahlia’s eyes, they are monstrous; and of course, their actions are monstrous. However, as the reader comes to know them with Mouse/Ghost, it is impossible to continue to view these young men as simply killers—they are pawns, surviving in whatever way they can, unwilling to sit down and die, no matter what they have to do to keep living. Ocho, who shows many sides—the killer, the tormentor, and the brother, the one who wants to take care of his boys—is one of the most complexly sympathetic characters in the novel, and his climactic decision is the turning point on which the conclusion rests. He chooses Ghost/Mouse, and Mahlia, over the leader of the United Patriot Front.
This ending is a brilliantly swift, confused, bloody conflict in which no one escapes truly unscathed—except, perhaps, Tool, who has discovered a purpose for himself by the end, even if that purpose is chilling for the reader. His kind treatment of Mahlia through the book, his decision to help her survive and learn, is endearing; his violence, his hunger for war, is alien and alarming. Every major character in this novel is a multifarious, complicated person containing evil and good—whatever those words can even mean in this setting—and no one is free of implication in cruelty and destruction.
Again, it is a brutal book, but it’s also a book that is guided by hope and sustained by people—half-man, young woman, young men maddened by forced soldiering, all alike—in their connections to each other, despite challenges. It is also a novel with a hell of a lot to say, politically and socially, underneath and around the plot of the text. The thematic arguments are delivered with the force of the emotionally wrenching story, linked to the suffering and strength of Mahlia in her society.
In particular, the “civilized” world (as Mahlia’s father refers to it in her memories) does not come off well in this book, told as it is from the point of view of two “war maggots” and a half-man. The direct, harshly critical allegory of the contemporary world, in this case, is extremely hard to miss—powerful, wealthy nations with functioning democracies, trying to “help” war-torn, “third-world” places with their armies, humanitarian aid, and money, and only making matters worse in the process. In The Drowned Cities, the northern regions of the old U.S. that have survived and cut themselves off from the chaos of the south offer nothing but guns across the border, and no hope of rescue to the hundreds of thousands of children who are savaged, inducted into armies, and murdered in the Drowned Cities.
The Chinese corporations and government made a long attempt to assist in ending the civil war, and have taken the allegorical position of the contemporary United States in international conflict: believing themselves saviors in their attempts to end the child-soldiering and the civil war, they could not see around the real problems with their incursion into the Drowned Cities territory and their attempts to enforce democracy. Bacigalupi’s social criticism is forceful and incisive, reversing stereotypical Anglo-American narratives about civilization/democracy as our forte and repressive, brutal regimes as something that only happen in countries that have been racially and culturally Othered. Here, the reverse is true; and while I don’t always think that simply flipping the situation is good enough for criticism, in this case, it is particularly provocative.
The criticism of political demagoguery achieved by extrapolating it to its terminus in the novel is also quite strident. At one point, Mahlia remembers Doctor Mahfouz, a pacifist who took her and Mouse in, trying to explain what had happened to the Drowned Cities:
“[ ] When people fight for ideals, no price is too high, and no fight can be surrendered. They aren’t fighting for money, or power, or control. Not really. They’re fighting to destroy their enemies. So even if they destroy everything around them, it’s worth it, because they know that they’ll have destroyed the traitors.”
“But they all call each other traitors,” Mouse had said.
“Indeed. It’s a long tradition here. I’m sure whoever first started questioning their political opponents’ patriotism thought they were being quite clever.” (277)
The sharpness is wrapped in dialogue, but social criticism is the lifeblood of this novel. In many ways, it’s a didactic novel, not simply entertainment; I’m reminded of Joanna Russ’s delineation of what good science fiction should do, and feel that Bacigalupi’s novel is aiming for it: “the illumination which is the other thing (besides pleasure) art ought to provide.” (The Country You Have Never Seen, 170)
The Drowned Cities is a high point of Bacigalupi’s work for me, in which concerns of race and gender are handled with seriousness and entirely inform the characters’ experience of their world. And not just to show that a woman is a victim—Mahlia is anything but. She is, in the final chapter, the one leading the Dog Company out to sea to trade for their freedom; she is the leader, and the owner of real power. She is the strategist who makes the book possible, and has only learned from her time travelling with Tool and her loss of Mouse/Ghost at the climax. As Ocho and his boys follow her into their potential free future, this devastating, complex novel ends on a distinctly hopeful note—but, I believe it. The hope does not seem unearned, or impossible, or flimsy. It has been fought for, and it is uncertain, but it is there.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic and occasional editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.