The Big Idea: Paolo Bacigalupi
Paolo Bacigalupi has made a name from himself — and garnered a shelf full of awards including the Hugo, Nebula and Printz — by taking a hard and not always comfortable look at the logical progression of today’s conditions into the future of our planet. In The Drowned Cities, the follow-on to his award-winning YA novel Ship Breaker, Bacigalupi looks again at the world we are creating today with our words and actions, and what it means for what we leave to those who come after us.
When I started writing The Drowned Cities, I hadn’t planned to write about politics. Typically I write about environmental issues such as global warming or energy scarcity or GM foods, but as I was working on the book, our increasingly divided political dialogue and government paralysis intruded.
These says, I can’t help noticing how much time we spend busting unions in Wisconsin or warring over contraception in universities, or checking people’s citizenship papers at traffic stops, while our geopolitical situation and future prospects change for the worse. As I’ve watched this dysfunction deepen, I’ve started to consider other aspects of where we might be headed.
As much as we invoke Rome and its fallen empire as a metaphor for our present American circumstance, I’m more interested in Greece, and the failures of prototype democracy. I can’t help but notice how easily demagogues and rhetoric sway our citizens these days, and how we turn on any leader foolish enough as to tell us that the shadows on the wall are false–whether that’s the dream of endless American prosperity, or the mirage of American exceptionalism, or the fairy tale that taxes will never be raised at the same time as our military will never be trimmed.
Democracy is fragile. It takes people working together in good faith to make it function. And yet, these days we celebrate people who profit from undermining it. We bathe ourselves in the rhetorical flourishes of Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity (and no, Keith Olbermann doesn’t float my boat much either), and it seems like you’re either a patriot or a traitor to your country. Environmentalist just want to kill jobs. Democrats are out to make America weak. The left is stupid, and the right is crazy. The Christians are trying to create a theocracy, and the socialists are hiding under every rock, just waiting to take over the government.
Division. Distrust. Contempt. Hatred.
Ironically, the demagogues who work so hard to deepen our divisions are getting rich at the same time. They hack away at their fellow citizens, and encouraging others to do the same. They devalue half our population’s humanity for the entertainment of the other half–and they make massive amounts of money. Rush Limbaugh alone makes $38 million a year from poisoning our political dialogue.
Almost all of my writing asks the simple question: If this goes on, what does the world look like? For The Drowned Cities, I asked: If everyone we disagree with is a traitor, where does that take us? If we can’t figure out how to cooperate, and if we always demonize one another, what sort of world do we hand off to our children in terms of politics and prosperity? The Drowned Cities is about the world after Rush Limbaugh and the rest of our talking heads have boarded their private jets and left the wreckage of the country behind. It about a world where we didn’t solve the big problems because we were focused on the small schisms.
In The Drowned Cities, warlord factions fight over territory, scrap, religion, and recruits. Two young children, Mahlia and Mouse, have been orphaned by the civil war and fled to the jungle outskirts. They’ve both lost their families and Mahlia has lost a hand to the war’s brutalities. Now, in the village of Banyan Town, they’ve found shelter, thanks to the protective influence of a humanitarian doctor. But even this fragile safety doesn’t last. War is coming Banyan Town. Soldier boys are in the jungles, sweeping the swamps with hunting dogs, searching for something that only Mahlia knows about. Something that the soldier boys will do anything to find, and something that Mahlia can never let them have, no matter what it costs herself, the doctor, or the town.