Good Stuff: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Drowned CitiesI’m about sixty percent through this book, and it feels like the story’s got its claws in my guts. And it’s pulling. I’m so sick with worry and despair over what’s going on in this story.

Sign of a good read.

This is Paolo’s second foray into life in America’s corpse after the seas have risen and the country has fallen to chaos. In Ship Breaker, the Gulf Coast was transformed into something like Gadani – an all-to-believable transformation. In the Drowned Cities it gets worse, with the entire Mid-Atlantic seaboard dissolved into a lawless realm of warlords shrouding themselves in hollow ideologies to spur children to war. Peacekeeping forces from a stable, civilized nation – China, in this case – have long since fled, unable to encourage peace and progress in the environment of hatred, greed and petty tit-for-tat warmongering. The flooded remains of D.C. have, in short, become an echo of Somalia.

This terrifying vision of our future isn’t the heart of the story – it is just the environment. The story follows Mahlia, a social castoff just barely maintaining a peaceful equilibrium on the outskirts of war. A life we would berely consider livable is shattered further when war comes to her, destroying her village and sweeping her up into its tide of hate and heatbreaking dehumanization. The author doen’t shy from human reality. This story hurts. Each miraculous turn of good luck – what we tend to expect to protect protagonists in stories we read – is balanced by a gut-punch of horror that only pushed her further into the darkness, until it really seems like there is no way out, no hope for the future of our species but a growing whirlpool of self-inflicted suffering.

In that morass is a deep-buried message of hope, the flipside to our species’ more prevalent and despicable traits. Ship Breaker dragged you down into abject poverty and despair, only to heighten the triumph as the protagonist clawed his bloody way out. A far as I’ve gotten in the Drowned Cities, it seems that Bacigalupi was only warming up. I can’t see how anything human cans urvive the meat-grinder Mahlia has fallen into. But I can hope.


The author achieves something awful and necessary with these stories. It is so easy to be shielded from the rest of the world here in the West. We can wall ourselves off from the brutal desperation and depravity our fellow humans are living across the world, and we don’t even know we’re doing it. We don’t even mean to. We’re shielded by comforts we take for granted, certain that our situation is permanent, that our nations and borders and goods and protections are inviolable. But they’re not. They’re words, vaporous notions. We have armies and laws and wealth, and we think they’ll protect us forever, but they might not. It’s all temporary. the world of the Drowned Cities reminds us that if we wall ourselves off from the rest of th world, turn a blind eye on the rest of the species, and get comfy in the certainty that we are safe and isolated, then the rest of the world will adapt and move on while we crumble. the tides of war and inhaumanity can roll up on any shore. If we hoard ou meager security to ourselves and turn our backs on the world, then the world will turrn its back on us. But if we continue to engage, grow, help and be helped, teach and learn, remain part of the worldwide community, then perhaps other nations and peoples will be tere to help us, to catch us, when our time comes to struggle and fall.

And that time will come. Brace yourselves. Nothing lasts forever, no matter how hard we believe.

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