Title: The Drowned Cities I Author: Paolo Bacigalupi I Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) offers the following synopsis for The Drowned Cities: Mahlia and Mouse are cast-off refugees from the Drowned Cities of a war-torn future American Southeast when they meet Tool, a half-man genetically engineered for one thing: killing.
Plot Summary: In a post-apocalyptic America that has been destroyed by the ravages of global climate change and political conflict, Mahlia (half Chinese, half American of undisclosed heritage) and Mouse have been rescued from the war by Dr. Mahfouz who is the peace loving physician for a quiet village on the outskirts of the Drowned Cities. Dr. Mahfouz has trained Mahlia to be his physician's assistant even though she has only one hand. Dr. Mahfouz sends Mahlia and Mouse out to scavenge food one day, and they are overpowered by Tool who is a genetically engineered human/dog/hyena/tiger that has been wounded by soldiers of the United Patriot Front (UPF) in his attempt to escape his captivity. Tool holds Mouse hostage and forces Mahlia to bring medicine or he will kill Mouse. When Mahlia returns to her home, she learns that the UPF has come to the village looking for Tool. She orchestrates a violent escape for herself and for Dr. Mahfouz. They return to Tool where Mahlia betrays the doctor in order to entice Tool to lead them to a safe haven up north. Mahlia's actions cause her village to be burned, her neighbors to be enslaved by the UPF and the doctor to be killed.
Mouse is separated from Mahlia and Tool and is the recruited by the UPF to serve in the war effort against rival factions the Army of God (recognizable by the green crosses that they wear), Tulane, Taylor's Wolves and the corporate armies. The remaining story deals with Mahlia's attempt to rescue Mouse and escape the Drowned Cities.
Review : This young adult book has earned a Mature Content rating for drug usage, aberrant behaviors, extreme language, graphic violence, sex and prostitution references, references to rape, extreme dystopian depictions. It also receives one star for story development.
In order to give a proper understanding of the problems deep-rooted of this young adult book, we will need to look at it from three different angles: its dystopia, its violence and its political indoctrination. Understand that when I take on a book for a YA review, I require that the story proves itself in two different ways: Is it appropriate for young readers and does the author competently persuade and entertain audiences. A five star review doesn't mean that I necessarily agree with the author's premise. It just means that the writer was effective.
Let's start with The Drowned Cities dystopian perspective. In this book, it's the end of America. The icecaps have melted. Coastal cities are now fully submerged in ocean water. The nation's remaining cultural cohesion has eroded into everlasting tribal warfare between political conservatives, religious zealots (recognized by the green crosses they wear) and corporate warmongers. There are some other warring factions, but the author only discusses those in passing.
The Chinese – who are described as brilliant and civilized planners and builders – did their best to occupy America and try to establish some civility in the savages. They rebuilt war torn cities, tried to incentivize Americans to lay down their weapons, be productive and just get along. The Chinese brought Americans eco-friendly energy and built wind farms which are described as rising up from the earth like beautiful white flowers, but the Americans were insolent and barbaric so the Chinese peace keeping forces gave up and left. In doing so, they left despots to fill the void the Chinese peace keepers created with their departure, and they left their half American offspring behind because those children were undesirable. These children are the castoffs and they are hated by warriors and civilians alike.
The corporate war mongers have created genetically engineered animal/humans called augments or dog faces. They are efficient, intelligent and violent killers and they are virtually indestructible. Tool is a dog face that has escaped his masters, is wounded and is in the process of making his way to freedom when the story begins. So we have Tool the dog face, Mahlia the castoff, Mouse the war maggot (a child who is orphaned by the war) and Dr. Mahfouz who is described as an "Arabic" that uses a prayer rug to pray several times a day. Dr. Mahfouz is a pacifist and frequently asks the people of his village to seek nonviolent solutions to violent problems.
As you may have noticed, the dystopia that is unfolding before you has some political overtones. Dystopian literature usually does. This is noteworthy because of the hundred-plus young adult books that have been recommended by the American Library Association in the year 2013, more than a quarter of them deal with apocalyptic themes and that means that more than a quarter of them are political dissertations on human destruction. This book is no exception and in case you feel vague or forgiving about that point, Paolo Bacigalupi clears it up for you in an interview found at the end of the book in which he describes his fury over Wisconsin conservatives mowing down the rights of teachers and talk radio hosts fomenting hate.
Now, this is where the review gets complex because the book seems to have a sort of multiple personality disorder going on that's a little hard to explain. It's almost as if it was written by two or three different people for the extraordinarily diverse writing styles that are present within it.
I started the book and immediately picked up on the author's political predisposition. Not much of a challenge there. But…and this is a big but…I was, in fact, engaged by the author's writing style. It was descriptive and compelling except for the sheer brutality of it. The vocabulary was reasonably advanced. Bacigalupi used impressive imagery that draws the reader in by inviting the reader to experience the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of war, and this is exactly what one would expect an adept fiction writer to do. Of course, if a reference to the smell of Mahlia's fertility is something you'd rather not experience, then maybe this isn't a story for you or your child because – please remember – this book is young adult fiction and therefore appropriate for readers 12 to 18. Nevertheless, the beginning seemed well thought out and when I was about 15% into the book, I thought, "You know, I don't like what this guy is saying, but he's making his argument effectively."
On completing 25% of the book, I made a mental note that the narrative wasn't as crisp and the vocab wasn't as advanced as it had been at the beginning, and when I hit 35%,I literally put my head on the table for the hopeless repetition and clichés that were besieging my brain. Imagine the dialog complexity of any Sylvester Stallone film and then imagine the film getting caught in a loop and repeating the same six lines over and over and over until you start looking forward to the violence just so the author can write about something he seems to enjoy…I'm just saying. No one likes having his time wasted with literary poly-fill.
From the 35% mark to the end of the book, the reader is ping ponged between inane conversations and author-curried thuggery. Mahlia is the closest thing the story's got to a protagonist. In the first 25% of the book, she is domineering, erratic, untrustworthy, self-possessed and the reader can perhaps muster some sympathy because she's a castoff, she's dealing with the loss of a limb and she's not yet an adult but mostly she's unlikable.
Mahlia has an extreme and incoherent strategy in response to everything that happens to her and her unruliness gets just about everyone around her killed or enslaved. Without thinking it through, she stages a violent attack on the UPF so that she can escape her village and bring medicine to the wounded augment named Tool who is holding Mouse hostage. Without thinking it through, she betrays the doctor who acts as her guardian. Without thinking it through, she heals Tool against the doctor's wishes with the hope that Tool will lead them all to the Promised Land…which is Boston – Heaven help us.
The doctor ends up getting killed by the UPF, Mouse gets recruited into the army and Tool agrees to follow her clichéd plans to save Mouse from the UPF within the Drowned Cities (Washington DC). The moment that Mahlia and Tool join forces, gone is the "Sarah Connor" prototype (and I'm talking about the T2 Sarah Connor) that we know because Mahlia experiences an inexplicable personality shift. For no disclosed reason, Mahlia is suddenly a helpless victim who has never had an original thought of her own in her life.
That kind of break in character is very distracting and a complete waste of opportunity. Mahlia's impulsivity is one of a hundred story threads that Bacigalupi could have teased out and resolved. Unfortunately, 60% of the way through the book, the reader will begin to realize that literally the only thing holding the story together is the violence. And violence is quite the point. Characters remain underdeveloped because the plot is secondary to what feels like a disturbing fantasy fulfillment.
There are secondary characters in this novel that are so intrinsically evil and sadistic, they make Hannibal Lecter look like a member of the Peace Corps. These characters symbolize political conservatives, Christian traditionalists and corporate warmongers and in this story, these evils have not only destroyed America and left her in ruins but they have brutalized Mahlia with such nauseating enjoyment and savagery that I had to step away from the book and shake off my revulsion.
And that still doesn't get us to the crux of the problem. You see, the story of The Drowned Cities was created to arouse an emotion and the emotion is hate and the hate is for the villains of the book and villains are conservatives and members of Christian faiths and corporations. The secondary characters are constructed in such a way as to make it necessary to violently abhor them. The situations are orchestrated so as to be detestable.
But here's the kicker. Once the crescendo of revulsion is achieved, the author steps out of the malicious deeds that he, himself, concocted and points at the violence of the evil conservatives and religious and corporations to show the reader all the awful crimes that they have committed as if he had nothing to do with how those characters behaved in the narrative.
The author created Mahlia for the specific purpose of having these fictitious arch-criminals brutalize and dehumanize her and then the reader – who, by definition, is a child between the ages of 12 and 18 – is supposed to experience hate followed by catharsis when the US Capital Building is blown sky-high and the arch-criminals receive their just punishments.
Let me reiterate this for clarity's sake. Paolo Bacigalupi unleashed savagery upon the reader…not conservatives. Children are reading this book because it has been named as one of YALSA's best fiction works of 2013....your tax dollars at work. So are we starting to understand why our nation is producing a generation of nihilists?