content by

Erik Henriksen

Overgrown Empire: Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell’s The Tangled Lands

Not to be too much of a killjoy, but friendly reminder: Each of us makes the planet a little bit worse.

Every day, we make an uncountable number of decisions. Big decisions, like whether to have kids. Smaller decisions, like deciding to drive to work or get a new iPhone. And decisions so tiny they barely register: Ordering a cheeseburger. Drinking a bottle of water. In the grand scheme of things, each of those choices has an infinitesimal impact. It’s only later, when combined with others’ actions, that we see our choices’ consequences: Overpopulation. Climate change. Human rights abuses. Deforestation. Garbage patches in the Arctic.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s ecologically focused work is shelved as science fiction, but horror might be a better fit. In The Wind-Up Girl, he considered what life could look like when towering walls protect cities from rising seas, and where corporations’ genetically modified crops annihilate the food chain. In The Water Knife, his drought-cracked American Southwest is home to those who control dwindling supplies of fresh water—and thus who lives and dies. Bacigalupi’s visions are intoxicating and terrifying; these futures aren’t so much possible as they are probable.

With The Tangled Lands, Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell create a shared fantasy world, with each contributing two novella-length stories. (Two of these stories were released in 2010 as an audiobook, The Alchemist and the Executioness; a year later, they were published as separate novellas.) Buckell and Bacigalupi imagine the melancholy remnants of a once-grand empire, where magic-using citizens once lived in comfort. They used magic to craft, to conquer, to heal. They used magic to keep hearth fires burning, and they used magic to build palaces that floated on clouds.

But each of those magics had a cost.

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