If you think “The Hunger Games” is a little rough for young readers, Paolo Bacigalupi’s new young adult novel “The Drowned Cities” is going to feel like a hard boot to the belly.
It’s a harrowing, thoughtful tale of two urchins trying to survive in a chaotic, collapsed American future that’s inundated by rising seawaters and vengeful private armies. When Mahlia and Mouse run afoul of a gang of brutal, mocking child soldiers who belong to one of many terrifying private armies, they turn to a genetically-engineered man/monster named Tool — last seen in the author’s Printz Award-winning “Ship Breaker” — for help.
“The intensity is much higher in this book,” says the highly decorated science-fiction writer from tiny Paonia.
Despite the success of his Hugo and Nebula award-winning “big people book,” “The Windup Girl,” these days Bacigalupi (BATCH-uh-guh-loo-pee) isn’t all that interested in writing for adults.
“There is maybe only one thing that distinguishes young-adult fiction, and that is, who do you think you are writing it for,” he says. “Adults can read them and they are engaging, but I want to communicate with a younger generation.”
Fast-paced and high-stakes as they are, Bacigalupi’s novels for young readers also ask tough questions. In the new novel he wanted to look at war: “What is war, why do we do it, when does it make sense, and when does it not make sense?”
Kids today, he says, have grown up in a “support the troops” world, in which asking such questions is asking to be labeled anti-American or unpatriotic, even to be shunned.
“Drowned Cities” portrays a world where private armies turn kids into unfeeling killers for whom rape, murder and torture are just part of the fun. Of course, those baby-faced savages are victims, too. (The tale is not set, as I’d first assumed, on the Gulf Coast of “Ship Breaker”; Bacigalupi offers up a nice, slow reveal of where we are.)
“People say I write really depressing stories. I’m thinking, ‘Wow, you should see the source material.’ This is our world, now, in the present moment,” he says.
Bacigalupi thought he was going to write an adventure along the lines of “Ship Breaker” — its portrayal of child labor is hardly light reading — but instead plunged into far more disturbing territory.
He looks with cynical bemusement on the recent flurry of attention to central Africa’s Lord’s Resistance Army, a self-proclaimed Christian militia that has been forcing children to become killers for decades. Despite the long history of the brutal LRA, public ire rose in response to an internet video — then just as quickly dissipated.
“We pick up little bones and feel sort of excited about it,” Bacigalupi says. “As long as we can get involved in an easy, feel-good way, we run around feeling heroic. As soon as it becomes more involving, it’s, ‘Oh, I just realized that “Project Runway” is on.'”
And what about Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular “Hunger Games”? Bacigalupi praises the first novel as a “thrilling ride,” but notes that the main character, Katniss, manages to “pass through this horrifying set piece without being morally challenged.”
So what now? Anything light and fluffy on the menu? Oh, not really. An adult science fiction novel set in the drought-stricken future Southwest of his story “The Tamarisk Hunter.” A young adult political thriller. And a middle-grade tale of a kids’ baseball team that saves its small town from a zombie invasion.
Alas, he says, even that latter seeming confection has taken on race, immigration, food safety, and the American identity itself.
“The whole idea was to just beat up zombies with baseball bats,” he says, laughing. “But it isn’t quite as dark as ‘Drowned Cities.'”