The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Drowned Cities is a companion novel to Mr. Bacigalupi’s award-winning dystopian novel Ship Breaker. Both stories take place in the same nasty, war-torn world: “a world destroyed and reconfigured by climate change and the greed of oil hungry corporations and industries. By the time the story opens, oil is an extremely scarce commodity, and the world’s transportation systems run on other forms of energy, for the most part.”

The Drowned Cities, however, is a much more violent and horrific novel than Ship Breaker was. Mahlia and Mouse, the two children who are the central characters in the story, are the victims of a society in which war has become the focal, salient fact of life. Mahlia is a half-breed, the daughter of a Chinese peacekeeper/soldier and his Drowned Cities (American) wife. Deserted by her father and with her mother dead, Mahlia has already experienced the horrors of a civilization in chaos that has become the playing ground for competing factions who war incessantly against each other for the sake of power. Mahlia and Mouse are so powerless that they don’t even count as pawns in the schemes of the groups that are fighting each other. They are nothing, “war maggots”, insects to be ignored or carelessly squashed unless they get in the way or are unfortunate enough to capture the attention of someone powerful.

I read this one with a kind of sick horror. The violence is the violence of war, not gratuitous in the sense that it is true to the realities of war. But on the other hand, the violence of war is gratuitous, unnecessary, and certainly unwarranted in the case of children who should never suffer or be enlisted as soldiers in the wars that adults start and prosecute. Just as we react with outrage when we hear of the child soldiers in some African conflicts, I wanted to pluck Mahlia and Mouse out of their appalling situation and somehow save them.

I predict you’ll feel the same way as you read The Drowned Cities. My other thought was: could The United States of America ever come to be such a barbaric, brutal place? I’m fairly sure we could. The Germans thought themselves to be one of the most civilized nations on earth before World War II. No one would believe the horrors perpetrated by such a civilized, Christian nation until they saw the proof of the Holocaust after the war was over. If our economy fell apart, for whatever reason, and our infrastructure collapsed, and most importantly, we had no real sense anymore of moral responsibility before a holy God, we could very well fall into anarchy.

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