Spencer Robins on ''The Drowned Cities'' and ''Ship Breaker'' YA novels by Paolo Bacigalupi
So Hot Right Now: ''Cli-Fi'' Comes to YA
March 13, 2066
Paolo Bacigalupi is one of cli-fi’s most successful practitioners. Almost every one of his novels and stories is set in a near-future devastated by rising sea levels and dwindling resources. Several of his books, in fact, seem to be set in the same collapsed future. His two young adult novels — Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities — share technologies, world-building details, a timeline, and a major character. Ship Breaker takes place in and around a drowned New Orleans, The Drowned Cities in a broken Washington, DC; but each book’s hero seems hardly to have heard of the other’s home, and travel between the two sites is almost unimaginable. Nailer in Ship Breaker and Mahlia in The Drowned Cities live in tightly bounded worlds. And so both books are to some extent stories of escape.
Fittingly, Nailer works as a ship breaker. He lives on Bright Sands Beach, on the remains of the Gulf Coast, where he and other children work in tight-knit “crews” to strip wrecked oil tankers of their valuable parts. (Nailer specializes in finding and removing copper wire.) Early in the book, a tremendous “city killer” storm hits the beach and strands a luxurious clipper ship nearby. Nailer and his crewmate Pima find the ship, which presents a life-changing salvage opportunity. But they also find the ship’s owner, a woman Nailer’s age named Nita, alive. At this point, we understand the choice Nailer faces: if Nita lives, she owns the wreck, and he cannot salvage it. If he chooses to help her, he abandons the best chance he is likely to have to escape the life he’s trapped in.
The book’s opening chapters, in which we are introduced to the politics and geography of Nailer’s tiny beachfront world before the storm sets the plot in motion, are perhaps the most effective part of either novel. Bacigalupi lays out the political and economic forces that control Nailer’s life and that make the decision he faces genuinely agonizing. The Bright Sands crews operate according to rigorous codes enforced both by the bosses that organize and exploit them and by the perceived honor of the young crewmembers — which includes a rigorous belief in personal property, without which their salvage economy could not function.
When Nailer decides to save Nita and flee with her to a nearby city, he is attempting to escape the community mindset as much as the beach itself. Survival seems to demand unerring focus. When, for instance, the sight of a clipper ship sets Nailer dreaming about “sailing away […] from the daily mangle of ship-breaking life,” he is surprised by a cloud of poisonous smoke from a nearby smelter, and reflects: “that was what thinking about clipper ships got you. A lungful of smoke because you weren’t paying attention to what was around.” Later, Nailer and his crew have a campfire conversation in which they discuss what will happen to Sloth, a crewmate they cast out, after she left Nailer to die so that she wouldn’t have to share a scavenge opportunity with him. Maybe she will become a “nailshed girl” (a prostitute), they suggest; maybe “she could sell off a kidney,” another says, or her “pretty eyes […]. Harvesters would take those in a second.” Or she could sell her eggs to a “Life Cult” that would use them to create the human-animal hybrids used in this world for heavy labor. In any case, “daydreaming” about a better life “is what made Sloth go bad.” These children have fully internalized the savage rules that keep them where — and what — they are.
This is Bacigalupi’s real subject: his books are not so much about changing climate systems as about scarcity, inequality, and the terrible systems they mutually reinforce. But after Nailer and Nita leave the beach, Ship Breaker becomes a fairly straightforward chase story (and, improbably, an old fashioned naval adventure) and hurtles toward an unconvincingly happy ending. The Drowned Cities is a better, more complex book. Its characters do not so easily escape their circumstances because those circumstances are more clearly social rather than geographic. And The Drowned Cities is a freer — less efficiently plotted and more immersive — work.
Mahlia, protagonist of The Drowned Cities, is a more traditionally outcast YA protagonist than Nailer. Her father was a Chinese peacekeeper sent at some point in the story’s past to restore order to a collapsing United States. Mahlia is a “castoff”: half-Chinese, but left behind when the peacekeepers gave up on America. The character descriptions in Ship Breaker suggest that the book’s cast is diverse and yet Bacigalupi allows himself almost no straightforward references to race, suggesting that if we need those definitions the problem lies within us. There are suggestions that the climate catastrophes might bring about a reprieve from injustice, that oppressive social structures might be temporarily washed away. After the storm hits Bright Sands Beach, Nailer is amazed by the freshness of the sand and water: “the beach was cleaner than he’d ever seen in his life.” And his abusive drug-addict father seems “almost rational. As clean as the beach.” This is but a brief hopefulness, however; more convincing is the fate of Mahlia in The Drowned Cities, who is subjected to the casual racism of people who resent her supposedly privileged background.
Having spent some time with her worldly father before he abandoned her, Mahlia knows more than Nailer does about the world outside her limited domain. So The Drowned Cities, like many sequels, gives us a broader sense of scope than its predecessor. Early on, for example, Mahlia remembers her father introducing her to ice:
This passage opens up the world in which the story takes place; it both clarifies and complicates Mahlia’s place within it; it shifts voices between Mahlia’s and her father’s, at least, and it echoes another literary memory of ice. Such passages, where Mahlia thinks rather than acts, are among the book’s best. But, like Ship Breaker, this book pretty quickly sets off another fast-paced danger-and-rescue plot. Mahlia and her friend Mouse live with Dr. Mahfouz, a rare intellectual in the Drowned Cities who took them in after their lives were threatened by the conflict between warlords vying for control of the Cities. Wandering in the jungle outside of town, the children come across a wounded monster: a huge human-animal hybrid with a face like a tiger’s, named Tool. Tool is an outlandishly powerful fighter and has seen a great deal of the world; Mahlia realizes that with his help, she and Mouse might be able to escape to the relatively peaceful and prosperous north. But Tool is being followed by a group of soldier boys, children made into killers in the service of a warlord. They kidnap Mouse and make him one of their own. Thus, much like Nailer, Mahlia must choose whether to pursue a possible escape from oppression or a dangerous rescue.
Bacigalupi’s plots can be a little formulaic. He uses some narrative tricks — “this just might work” style plans, fake-out deaths — not twice but many times. And both books are orchestrated to confront their protagonists with terrible choices. At their best and most bracing, they show these choices for what they are: impossible, hopeless, utterly necessary because of the cruel, broken systems in which the characters dwell. At their worst, they can feel like another frustrating series of new obstacles. And such plot devices do not always leave room for attention to, for example, the transformed natural world that qualifies these books as climate fiction.
But on this score again The Drowned Cities is a somewhat looser and more interesting book. There are times when the characters look up and notice the strange world around them. When Tool first wakes from his injuries, Bacigalupi describes:
Hybridity is an important theme in almost all climate fiction, and that is very much the case in these books. Tool is the one character who appears in both novels. He is some combination of human, hyena, tiger, and dog. He was created by humans to function as a warrior and more importantly as a servant: the purpose of his canine DNA (and an alluded-to regimen of brutal training) is to give him a deep, seemingly natural need to serve a particular human master. But Tool has, at some point before the events in these books, overcome this instinct. This makes him one of Bacigalupi’s most compelling characters. Every moment of freedom he enjoys is a protest against the ugliness of his creation. He seems to know this, and I think young people will respond to it. (Bacigalupi has explored characters like this in other books: the title character of The Windup Girl is a sort of biological robot, also programmed to serve, who struggles with and ultimately overcomes her servile instincts.)
In Tool’s case, we don’t see exactly how he freed himself from himself. It may be by the force of his personality, it may be due to some terrible event in his past. Or it may have to do with the natural forces that his creators thought they’d harnessed in making him. In works that imagine our biological future, hybridity is often associated with a kind of freedom. Maybe this is just Jurassic Park’s “life will find a way” in new genetic clothes, but Tool is an especially credible instance of the idea that there is something hopeful in nature’s chaos. Humans made him but, perhaps inevitably, he wriggled free.
Tool is the wildest thing in these books. Unfortunately, that includes the language. The prose in The Windup Girl, still Bacigalupi’s best book, shows how language warps and weaves under pressure from corporate marketing, scientific jargon, language mixing, and changed cultural concerns. One of my favorite details is the way characters in that novel use the ecological term “niche” in a moral sense — to mean, roughly, that one should respect one’s place. And the fact that the book’s world is dominated by multinational “calorie companies” is reflected in the fact that even the living things that flit across the book’s background go by brand names (“U-Tex rice,” “jingjok2 lizard”). There are moments of this linguistic insight in Bacigalupi’s YA novels: one of Ship Breaker’s most casually awful revelations comes when Nailer refers to “Orleans II,” and implies a lost city. But in general, neither Ship Breaker nor The Drowned Cities challenges its young readers to be alive to the effects of climate change and catastrophe on language itself.
Instead, Bacigalupi’s stories are steadfastly focused on the terrible circumstances in which his young protagonists are trapped by ecological — and more importantly political — failure. And so, as noted, his books are ultimately about escape. The best hope they offer their protagonists is that they might be able to leave. On the one hand, it’s interesting to see YA books where the main character is not a historically transformative figure, where individual survival is so tenuous that it becomes the material for a whole story. But neither book lets us follow its characters after they escape. In a sense, the books’ perspectives feel as constricted as their characters’ worldviews. They stop just at the point when those characters might begin to learn how their world works. Before writing The Drowned Cities, Bagicalupi apparently started and abandoned a direct sequel to Ship Breaker. I would certainly like to see where these young people go next — what choices they face when they see more of their strange world.