Fans of the extreme physical action—violent, visceral, and wrenching—of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy now have something in common with fans of Philip K. Dick’s philosophical, alt-future ruminations about the nature of humanity.
It’s a strange mix, but the way Paolo Bacigalupi does it, it feels natural. The child protagonists of Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities leave hooks deep in the willing reader. The world falls apart, and yet the kids are still kids underneath their adaptation to their environment.
The natural environment is only the first of the changes affecting the characters. In the wake of extreme climate change, the political unity and economic base of the United States have vanished. Scavengers and soldiers prey on the dead and the living, respectively. Bacigalupi writes child protagonists entirely native to this post-apocalyptic world. They adapt or die, and many die despite adapting. For the survivors, characteristics we think of as childlike are a luxury that could get them killed.
Bacigalupi also introduces adults also shaped in varied ways by the environment. Some are hard, cruel, and outwardly strong. Others are kind, generous, and outwardly weak. There is a fairly strong valuation of adult behaviors in Bacigalupi’s two books, but nothing so uninteresting as judgement. The cruel, hard adults are neither excused flatly for their circumstances, or blamed flatly for their actions. When doing right gets people killed, how are we to judge those who do wrong to survive? There are distinctions—cruelty for entertainment versus extreme violence for survival—that teenagers and adults will be better able to parse than kids. These books are definitely for those readers.
There’s an interesting structure to these books. Whereas Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy has one protagonist and a fixed set of support characters, Bacigalupi’s Drowned Cities trilogy (only 2/3 published with the title book of the series coming second) has different protagonists in each of the first two books.
At times, reading the second book, I felt that Nailer, the protagonist of Ship Breaker, would show up in a few pages. In a sense, he is the ideal companion of Malia, the second book’s protagonist. Bacigalupi kept me anticipating his reappearance for most of the book. However, Ship Breaker shares only one character with the sequel, and the discovery was so unexpected, I’ll leave it to readers to discover.
All of these characters—the culled and calloused children, the scarred and scary adults, and the human-animal hybrids Bacigalupi invents—explore some of the same ground where Philip K. Dick left tracks. What counts as human? It’s not easy to answer. Like Dick, Bacigalupi leaves the argument (for now) inconclusive. The answers aren’t simple, and having opened the can of worms, the humans of Philip Dick’s worlds with their un-welf-aware androids and diembodied intelligences, those of Bacigalupi’s with their hybrids and “nasty, brutish, and short” lives imposed by constant war argue it out inconclusively, through words and deeds.