Thoughts on Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Drowned Cities and Julianna Baggott’s Pure

I picked up these  two books in close succession and read them back-to-back (actually, I didn’t exactly “pick up” Bacigalupi’s book; I preordered it because his work is probably the most exciting world building- and idea-wise of any current author I’ve read).  I was mid-way through Pure when The Drowned Cities arrived, and I plowed through both rather quickly. The two share enough similarities, despite huge differences in set-up and execution, that I thought it was worth looking at them side-by-side

My short take is that both are strong, mature entries in the currently booming young adult dystopia/post-apocalyptic genre (to be fair, Bacigalupi’s is better defined as “post-collapse”; and Baggott’s book doesn’t seem to be tagged by the publisher as YA even if the label really fits); I’d strongly recommend both to fans of the genre.  They are both plot-driven in typical YA fashion, but the ideas behind the worlds, and the development of dark, relevant to our world themes that reflect on our own situation, stand up well enough for honest, open-minded adult readers to not dismiss them. From a ranking point of view, Bacigalupi’s book is hands-down the superior work, partially due to the amount of work he has put into developing the world in which it takes place (the same world as his earlier YA novel Ship Breaker, which shares a main character, The Wind-up Girl, and at least two stories from his collection Pump Six and Other Stories).  I’d recommend The Drowned Cities to anyone, and everyone concerned about the future should be reading his books, but Pure, as good as I think it is, may be more of a genre fan novel (its rights have, however, already been picked up by Fox Studios, due undoubtedly to the genre’s popularity; I have no idea what the status of Bacigalupi’s YA books being adapted is, but they would work very well in the hands of a good director).

So both books are arguably “post-apocalyptic,” but what exactly does this mean?  As I mentioned, The Drowned Cities takes place in the same post-peak-oil, climate change and rising sea-levels, salvage-as-capital world as his prior novels (after “the accelerated age”), and this world is fully fleshed-out, thoughtfully considered, and a downright frightening view of where we may be in a matter of decades.  Pure is more of a throwback; the destruction of civilization (at least in the post-apocalyptic North America setting) is due to “the detonations,” a missile exchange more reminiscent of cold war-era science fiction than contemporary visions of the end of the world as we know it.  If this were the extent of Baggott’s world-building, it would be a mediocre read, but she adds in two factors that make the world far more interesting than another Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior rehash.

First, Baggot juxtaposes the post-apocalyptic wasteland with a concurrent dystopian civilization that survives in a kind of ark: “the dome,” which has  promised or implied to the survivors on the outside that it will re-civilize the destroyed world (its conspiratorial role in the actual apocalyptic event is suggested, but I’ll leave that out as too much of a giveaway).  While the development of this society is, in my opinion, under-developed, it provides a kind of “class” tension between characters (“pures” in the dome and “wretches” outside) and an eventual narrative arc (and revelations) that a strictly wasteland story would lack.  Second, the nature of the apocalyptic event in Pure is somewhat novel in its effects: humanity outside the dome is no longer the same, and they aren’t just fallout-tainted mutants.  Instead, what Baggott creates is a world of people who are “fused” with everyday objects, other beings, and even so distanced from the recognizably human to appear and act as nearly elemental forces.  This seems hokey at first (a guy with a live dog for a foot? really?), but it eventually the weirdness and accompanying estrangement works rather well.

Since Baggott’s novel is a projected first book in a trilogy (and the ending certainly implies a sequel), I’m hoping that follow-ups with further revelations and exposition will translate a promising but not fully-developed post-apocalyptic and dystopian world into a more complete one that deals more explicitly with the concerns of how humanity got there.

The two books’ similarities are not so much in setting, but in characters and thematic concerns.  Both feature a teenage girl as the protagonist: what appears to be an increasing common and welcome trend in YA fiction.  Beyond merely presenting a young woman’s perspective on, and challenges in, a post-apocalyptic world, each also makes the decision to portray her as someone with a physical disability.  Oddly enough, this disability in both cases is the lack of one hand.  Baggott’s Pressia is, like all the other survivors outside the dome, fused by the effect of the detonations.  Her fusion is a doll in the place where one hand once was.  Bacigalupi’s Mahlia is also missing a hand, but hers is a product of the ongoing internecine warfare and ethnic prejudice/cleansing in the story’s world.  Both girls’ disabilities are used as focal points for their own self-image and character growth, rather than merely presented as grotesque effects of the horrible situations they are caught up in.  It is also worth mentioning, though I won’t go on further about it, that both Mahlia and Pressia are of mixed race (a common trope in Bacigalupi’s work, but typically not something we see in or that people associate with these coverging genres).

Each novel also explores the horror of child soldiers in a relatively nuanced manner.  I might be going too far into editorial mode, but this is an under-reported and sad phenomenon in our own world that exists primarily in places where resource wars driven by demands of the economic elite persist (religion is, of course, also a factor in our world and is considered as an element of this in both books).  Both Bacigalupi and Baggott present these child/adolescent militias as a menace to other citizens (especially the protagonists), but they do so without totally dehumanizing the individuals forced into such service.  The tragedy of such a practice is given real consideration, and members of these militias are not solely caricatures used to advance the plot.

The last main convergence worth mentioning is how bio-engineering is used in the service of war.  Readers of Bacigalupi’s previous work will recall the “half-men” or “augments” engineered as ultimate fighting machines for a new era of more direct conflict than our own age of drones and satellites.  And in The Drowned Cities Tool, the half-man from Ship Breaker reappears and in some ways undermines claims on  Mahlia being the main character.  Tool is given a voice and interior monologue far more expansive than in the earlier, companion novel, and this is the breakthrough for this book in terms of how the author is developing this world.  Bacigalupi has given us versions of barely recognizably-human characters before (in The Wind-up Girl and “The People of Sand and Slag,” for instance), but here the relationship between someone mostly like us (Mahlia) and someone who seems so unlike us (Tool) developed from both sides is masterful and brilliant.

Baggott also exploits bio-engineering in a way not quite as exceptional as Bacigalupi, but still more complex than, say, the muttations of Collins’s The Hunger Games books.  As in The Drowned Cities, her adapted humans in Pure are menacing creatures of war tinged with a persistent humanity that cannot be wholly eradicated.  While the character development of these creatures is less complex than Bacigalupi’s, a particular “special forces” humanoid provides for one of the most moving scenes in the book.

While I’ve really just scratched the surface here, both of these books stand out as exceptional examples of a forward-looking genre with much to say about our world and what it may become.  The convergences are worth considering as both authors seem to have real investment in where we as a species are going, even if their overall world-views diverge.

As a final note, I do find “book trailers” odd, and both of these have one.  So here are previews produced or condoned by the publishers:

Trailer for The Drowned Cities:

Trailer for Pure:

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Comments
  1. […] and is convinced in the reality of magic.   Mor also happens to be disabled, which seems to be a thing in YA lit recently (I don’t have anything insightful to add on this, but I’m sure it is  worth thinking […]

  2. Fabionub says:

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